Airports face an energy “perfect storm” — but there’s a way out

Guest Author
Collage image of airport symbols and clean energy highlighted in green on a blue background.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

At airports across the country, the energy transition is arriving and the status quo is departing. In the coming years, some turbulence is likely if the industry doesn’t take action now. 

Airport electricity demand is expected to multiply five times by 2050 and is among the leading worries for airport executives over the next two decades, according to a recent survey from the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and AlphaStruxure. While 2050 seems far away, the survey also found that in just five years, at least one large hub will see its electricity demands triple. 

The traditional energy infrastructure airport operators have relied on for the past half century may not be able to keep pace with ballooning power requirements. For many airports, it’s time to think outside the grid.  

Executives expect the wave of electrification to hit rental car fleets first. One executive, speaking anonymously to be candid in the AAAE survey, said his airport was already forced to reject rental car agencies’ requests for chargers because of insufficient capacity.  

Indeed, large airports will need an estimated additional 10 to 20 megawatts (MW) within a few years just to electrify 25% of the rental cars on-site, according to an engineering firm cited in the AAAE and ASX report. That’s enough electricity to power an entire large airport terminal. What’s more, it typically takes three to seven years, and tens of millions of dollars, to procure that much energy from utilities — if indeed such spare capacity exists. The additional energy needs could grow to 40 to 50 MW when 50% of rental fleets become electric vehicles.

Those aren’t the only storm clouds hovering over airport energy demands. Added complications include state and local decarbonization goals, an anticipated three-fold increase in travel demand by 2040 and many other electrification pursuits. To accommodate surging travel demand, all the executives surveyed were planning future terminal expansions.   

At the same time, only 15% of those surveyed felt “very confident” they could keep pace with growing power needs. One executive reported his airport’s 2019 energy plan is already outdated because of how fast electrification has accelerated. Another said: “We’ve pretty much got a perfect storm of energy coming at us.”

The stakes are high. Even relatively short outages cost airports millions and leave travelers stranded. In 2017, a half-day outage at Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport cost Delta up to $125 million in 2017, impacting 30,000 travelers. Although not usually this severe, outages are common. Most executives (85%) reported at least one power outage at their airport in the past year.

Planning and preparing at the speed and scale required to support both passenger growth and climate targets may require airport operators to look beyond the grid and to ways airports can start generating their own energy.

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City is one of the busiest airports in the United States. When it opens New Terminal One in 2026, the airport will be able to draw from the largest clean energy airport microgrid in the U.S., built as part of its New Terminal One project. The 11.3-MW microgrid, deployed by AlphaStruxure, will feature the largest rooftop solar array in New York City and on any U.S. airport terminal. When combined with battery storage and fuel cells, the array will enable the terminal to power 100% of its critical operations during power outages while delivering greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 38% over grid-sourced energy.

For airports interested in deploying similar projects, sufficient capital funding for what are often massive infrastructure upgrades can be a major barrier. New Terminal One sidestepped this issue with an Energy as a Service model. The model allows organizations to deploy large-scale, on-site energy infrastructure without upfront costs. Instead, an Energy as a Service provider, in this case AlphaStruxure, puts up the capital. In return, New Terminal One, as the client, pays AlphaStruxure a predictable monthly rate, competitive with utility power rates, over a long-term contract.

With this partnership, JFK can pursue decarbonization and resilience at a greater speed and scale than if it were responsible for the capital and operational costs alone. AlphaStruxure designs and builds the system and then operates and maintains it for the life of the contract. JFK can thereby focus on moving passengers safely and efficiently to their destinations while AlphaStruxure assumes the financial and technical risks of deploying advanced energy systems.

This model can be enacted alongside other funding solutions: recent incentives in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. More than $25 billion in grants and numerous tax credits are available to help airports modernize energy infrastructure

The full force of the “perfect storm of energy” hasn’t yet arrived, but even its first waves pose serious challenges for airports. We need to start thinking beyond the grid today.