The Earth, Wind and Fire of Airport Sustainability

How sustainable efforts are breathing new life into today’s airports, saving the environment and money at the same time

Cost: $43 million

Environmental Savings: Projected to cut the use of 5 million gallons of jet fuel annually, saving an estimated $15 million a year, and eliminating the release of 40,000 tons of greenhouse gases.

The Port of Seattle continues its green journey by turning on the air conditioner or turning up the heat at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The airport’s recently implemented $43 million preconditioned air service heats or cools aircraft during boarding and deplaning, and when coupled with the electricity already being provided at its 73 gates, eliminates the need for aircraft to keep engines and auxiliary power units running.

The airport’s centralized plant delivers preconditioned air to aircraft via 15 miles of pipes, says Sea-Tac Environmental Director Elizabeth Leavitt. Though it’s not the first preconditioned air project at an airport, Leavitt maintains it is the first one drawing from the airport’s centralized heating/cooling plant to deliver the air.

“My understanding is we are the first airport to have all the gates done. These systems also had very different designs, not one that relied on a central plant design,” agrees Lynn Oliphant, Sea-Tac aviation infrastructure system engineer.

Engineers built the system into the airport’s existing central mechanical plant, where air is heated or cooled as dictated by outdoor weather conditions. This central plant houses eight 750-ton chillers, four of which are used to fill 16 ice storage tanks nightly (when electricity costs are cheapest) with ethylene-glycol solution to be used for cooling purposes. When chilled air is needed, the system runs the air across these ice-filled tanks to cool the air to a more desirable temperature. Conversely, if heated air is required, the airport’s steam power system heats water in pipes that the air runs across on its way to the gates. A heat exchanger located at the gate directs the conditioned air to a ventilation hose that connects directly to the aircraft’s cabin and pumps air inside.

The benefits of the projects are huge, according to Leavitt, who projects the system will save an estimated 5 million gallons of jet fuel a year. “At $3 a gallon that is about $15 million annually,” she says. “In addition, it will eliminate the release of 40,000 tons of greenhouse gases every year and 73 tons of nitrogen oxide.”

Though the airport is committed to reaching its goal of 60 million passengers annually over the next 20 years in the greenest most sustainable way possible, these improvements do cost money. Fortunately, Leavitt says the airport has been able to net millions in grant funds to pay for various improvements, such as the preconditioned air system. In fact, the airport used a $24 million Voluntary Airport Low Emissions (VALE) grant from the FAA to offset the costs of this system.

“The tip to getting grants is to show you have a program worthy of attention and that you are thinking about how to pull off a program that not only benefits the airport, but serves the airlines and the community,” Leavitt says. “If you can come up with projects that benefit all three, I think it puts you in a better position to successfully compete for a grant.”



Project: Solar Farm

Where: Indianapolis International Airport

Cost: $37 million

Capacity: 12.5 MW of electricity (enough to power 1,200 homes annually)

Environmental Savings: Prevents 11,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere, which is the equivalent of keeping 2,000 cars off the roads.

Indianapolis International Airport really soaks up the sun as home to the largest solar farm on airport real estate in the United States. The $37 million, 12.5-megawatt (MW) photovoltaic plant, which boasts 41,000 solar panels installed on ground-mounted racking systems on 75 acres of airport land, opened in October.

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