Learning on the Fly: Pittsburgh Airport Microgrid Turns 2

July 31, 2023
The series of Jennbacher gas-fired gen-sets actually power the airport’s main campus, and provide the microgrid. The solar panels are separate and autonomous and can energize 23 meters at the airport.

Earlier this year, energy industry news coverage centered on the JFK Airport in New York and plans to partially power its upcoming, new $9.5-billion Terminal One with a cutting-edge, 11-MW microgrid array of solar, battery storage and natural gas fuel cells.

It’s the Big Apple, so the media sets its gaze through the NYC skyline. Once the American point of entry for the Beatles, JFK Airport became the focus of renewable and energy transition super-fans the world over. Microgrid mania.

Yet they are not close to being first or even biggest. Nearly 400 miles away in western Pennsylvania, a multi-resource and even bigger microgrid has been up and running and teaching on-site power lessons at another major airport.

The microgrid at Pittsburgh International Airport is now 2 years old, no new phenomenon but a full-standing leader of lessons learned in the sector. The period since June 2021 when the combined 23-MW natural gas gen-set and solar combination was commissioned has been very reliable but with a few growing pains.

“The real takeaway is that the system operated exactly the way it was designed,” Tom Woodrow, senior vice president of engineering and intelligent infrastructure at the Pittsburgh International Airport, said in interview with Microgrid Knowledge. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s done everything we wanted it to do.”

Learning on the fly, so to speak. The series of Jennbacher gas-fired gen-sets actually power the airport’s main campus, and provide the microgrid. The solar panels are separate and autonomous and can energize 23 meters at the airport. The solar facility is owned and operated by IMG Energy Solutions, while Peoples Natural Gas owns the generator plant and both are in partnership with the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

The airport is billed for its energy usage from the microgrid output same as other customers are within the main grid.

The microgrid, built at no cost to the airport, is interconnected to the PJM grid, although it can operate in island mode under a grid outage scenario. This proof of concept, however, went through a few challenges along the way.

“Our (gas-fired) energy plant is capable of producing 100 percent of our needs,” Woodrow said.

One unexpected detour had nothing to do with the airport microgrid’s operational strengths, but rather from the main grid side. Due to the interconnection, a grid disruption from an ice storm in February 2022—when the microgrid was barely seven months old—led to low voltage line fault all the way to the gas-fired generations at the airport, opening breakers and shutting the engines off.

Another threat came later from a utility pole in the distribution system, damaged by a motorist, but the generator’s controls recognized the anomaly and avoided any potential damage to the system before it arrived. In the case of the ice storm low voltage line fault, the microgrid operations team was able to get the gen-sets roaring back to action safely and effectively.

“It was nothing you could foresee, design, or plan for,” Woodrow pointed out. “We learned from that and our team made the appropriate adjustments.”

The response was making adjustments to the breaker and relay settings. Millions of dollars are invested in this microgrid, so no protection is too small to deliver reliability once a vulnerability is discovered.

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The Pittsburgh airport’s leadership and its partners are so pleased with the performance of the approximately 10,000 solar panels that it is already permitted to double the capacity. The only holdbacks are finding customers for that renewable energy and clearing the PJM Interconnection logjam of projects aiming to reach operations.

All in all, Woodrow and the infrastructure team at PIT feel happy and confirmed in their conviction that this microgrid project would work above and beyond expectations. The team is exploring options for expansion, and also sharing their insights with other airports interested in doing similar on-site power projects.

“A group from Houston George Bush Airport was up here last fall, intent on doing something,” he said.

Imitation is flattery, and thus more and more airports are taking note of what’s happened with the airport microgrid in Allegheny County. Pittsburgh International Airport may not have the fame of JFK, but it was way ahead in its development and fruition, which both overwhelmed and thrilled its planners.

“We flew by the seats of our pants to get this done,” Woodrow said.