The Earth, Wind and Fire of Airport Sustainability

Airports like Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, and Indianapolis International Airport are leaving no stone unturned on their quest for the earth, wind and fire of environmental sustainability. And in the case of the aforementioned airports, they’ve already found it. O’Hare uncovered the earth in an environmentally saving runway project; Sea-Tac faced the wind with its preconditioned air system; and Indianapolis stoked the fire with its solar farm.

Of the three examples, consider this: Sea-Tac projects its airlines will use 5 million gallons less jet fuel a year because of their access to its new preconditioned air system; O’Hare kept 6 million cubic yards of dirt and concrete out of the landfill; and the Indianapolis solar energy project prevents 11,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere annually.

“There are many environmental projects out there that are smart both environmentally and economically,” says Elizabeth Leavitt, Sea-Tac environmental director. “If you focus on the low-hanging fruit in the beginning, people will start to see that sustainability is not just about being green in terms of environment but also in terms of money.”



Project: Group 6 Runway

Where: O’Hare International Airport

Cost: $1.3 billion

Environmental Savings:

$130 million saved by recycling concrete, using warm mix asphalt and employing cut-and-fill construction methods.

On a crisp autumn day, planes began roaring down the new runway at O’Hare International Airport. While the 10,800-foot airstrip represents a feat in and of itself as it builds hopes of reducing delays at the second busiest airport in the world, the true hallmark of this project might just be the sustainability of the construction itself.

Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino says the construction involved moving earth to create a new detention basin. The old basin, known in some circles as Lake O’Hare, was filled with excavated dirt removed from the new one. “It was a cut-and-fill job,” Andolino explains. “We minimized earth movements or handling of the earth by only handling it once.”

The airport also put a crusher on the job site to break up existing concrete, crush it into certain types of mixes, and reuse it. “Traditionally we would have taken that concrete, hauled it to a landfill, and brought in virgin materials,” says Andolino.

Crews also used warm mix asphalt for the project. In fact, O’Hare is among the first airports in the United States to produce and place warm mix asphalt—as opposed to hot mix asphalt—in the construction of new taxiways and runways. Like hot mix asphalt, warm mix asphalt combines aggregates and liquid but through the use of additional additives requires less heat to produce. Because less heat is required to produce the mix, less fuel is consumed, fewer greenhouse gases are produced, and emissions are reduced.

The techniques employed in the runway project are part of the O’Hare Modernization Program’s (OMP) Earthwork Management Program, which aims to extend runways, construct new runways, expand terminal facilities, and incorporate landside improvements in the most environmentally friendly way possible. To date, the OMP has handled more than 18 million cubic yards of soil in an environmentally friendly way designed to reduce hauling, labor and fuel costs, as well as emissions and traffic congestion.

And according to Andolino, this approach has been both green and saved green. It has kept more than 6 million cubic yards of earthwork onsite and out of landfills by reusing the soil in new projects or saving it for future use, and these efforts have saved the CDA more than $130 million.

“And because we didn’t haul dirt offsite, we also minimized trips on local roadways, wear and tear on those roadways, and community impacts,” Andolino adds.



Project: Preconditioned Air System

Where: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

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.

The project’s origins began in 2012, when Indianapolis Power & Light (IPL) signed a land-lease with the airport to begin working on the project. Prework commenced, which included addressing FAA air-space issues, environmental and geological work, glare studies, and getting approval from the Indiana Regulatory Commission.

In the past, solar farms near airports received flack over purported glare issues, but Eric Anderson, airport property manager, maintains this is far from the case here. “We checked all the orientations for pilots and control towers, and did all the things required by the FAA in terms of positioning and testing, and the solar farm is oriented in such a way to eliminate glare,” he says.

Telamon and Johnson Melloh Solutions designed, constructed and will operate this new solar farm. The power produced will be sold to IPL through a 15-year power purchase program, and will be fed into a grid of existing surface transmission lines that connect the airport to the IPL’s substation to the west. The renewable energy generated by this solar farm, where each solar panel is capable of producing 280 watts of electricity at peak production, is projected to prevent 11,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the environment annually, which according to Anderson, is the equivalent of removing approximately 2,000 cars from the roads. In addition, he says, the 12.5 MW of power the farm produces is projected to provide enough electricity for 1,200 average-size homes each year.

The airport also profits by leasing the land, says Anderson. The land where the farm rests is near a runway, and thus is bound by height restrictions. “We couldn’t build an office building, a hangar or even a parking lot there,” he says. “Now we are getting $285,000 a year in additional revenue for it.”

The project’s success landed an agreement for a second solar farm of similar size and scope to rest on an additional 75 acres of airport land. That project is currently waiting on FAA approval, according to Anderson.

Airports are increasingly seeking ways to maximize aeronautical revenue and the solar farm is certainly doing that in Indianapolis. Though the electricity produced must go into the power grid, rather than power the terminal itself, Anderson says the solar farm’s presence is a symbol of the airport’s commitment to sustainability. “It’s an iconic symbol for Indianapolis,” he says. “Anyone who flies here will see the solar farm; it’s positioned strategically so that it will be seen.”