Seeking Airport Resiliency with Microgrids? Start Here

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More and more airports are interested in developing microgrids following last December’s power outage at the Atlanta airport. But often transportation officials aren’t sure how to get started.


Plane flying over Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by By cate_89/

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) aims to help them by developing a “microgrid implementation toolkit,” according to Adam Klauber, RMI’s director, sustainable aviation.

Prepared through a $450,000 grant awarded today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the toolkit will include two components: 1) an informational event and 2) guidance in issuing a microgrid request for information (RFI).

Atlanta’s painful lesson

The value of a microgrid — particularly over simpler backup generation — became painfully clear at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport during its December 17 power outage. With no microgrid, the busiest airport in the world remained in the dark for 11 hours.

Tens of thousands of passengers were stranded with 1,200 flights canceled. Each flight cancellation by a narrow-body aircraft can cost more than $100,000 in ticket sales, said Klauber.

Generally, airports rely on diesel generation as backup to operations during outages, he said. “That’s what Atlanta had on board but wasn’t able to get it online. The backup generators didn’t function as needed and were undersized.”

Backup generators also have other limiting factors. For example, they don’t necessarily provide instantaneous power, he added.

More sophisticated, and containing multiple power resources, microgrids offer far greater reliability.

In a summary of the toolkit project, the academy noted that power outages cause flight delays, extend layovers, disrupt cargo operations and lead to loss of revenue, and limit an airport’s lability to provide emergency support.

“One solution to mitigate risks and address negative effects of power outages is for airports to act self-sufficiently in the generation and management of their own power. A microgrid can enable an airport to act independently and have enhanced control and protection from grid instability,” the academy wrote.

But microgrids also are a relatively new technology to those not in the energy business — which is where the toolkit comes into play.

How the toolkit works

As a first step in the toolkit, key stakeholders attend an event to gain knowledge about microgrids in preparation for issuing a project RFI.

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RMI will likely hold the event in California and it may include a tour of the San Diego International Airport microgrid components.

The second part of the RMI effort will be the toolkit itself, designed to help an airport in early stage planning. Using the toolkit, airport officials will be able to proceed with confidence during the RFI stage.

“This will help them determine what their level of ambition is and what they can expect,” he said.

The toolkit will help officials determine the size of the microgrid, which assets to backup, and evaluations of renewable energy resources.

“It will look at tradeoffs between clean power and fossil power — maybe fuel cells and hydrogen, which are becoming more economical, and may make sense,” he said.

The toolkit will also help airports explore a range of technologies, including energy storage, so that they can understand the costs, installation, and other issues that will affect them.

Gaining utility support for microgrids at airports

Utility worker. Photo by Robert Gerhardt/

The RMI toolkit will allow stakeholders to communicate all their opinions and ideas early as they consider microgrid development. Airports will know how to proceed and gain the support of key constituents, he said. For example, RMI will explore how to get utility support for microgrid projects.

“A project won’t make progress if the regional utility won’t answer the phone or buy in,” he said.

The role of utilities in airport microgrids is still unclear, he noted. In California, utilities have more experience with microgrids and are more open to them.

“Other utilities may not have strong views; we expect a range of utility impressions and assumptions,” he said.

Klauber said he’s assuming that most airports will want to stay grid-connected, with the option of islanding from the grid. They’ll likely rely on the microgrid when it makes economic sense, but will still count on grid power for most of their energy consumption needs, he said.

Most likely, the toolkit will be an excel-based file or online software that’s easily accessible and easy to update, said Klauber. The details of its format will be decided in part by panelists who are advising American Cooperative Research. Those panelists are industry members, including the Federal Aviation Administration, four airports, and a neutral consultant from an engineering firm, he said.

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  1. David Michel says:

    Great article. Airports will serve after major disasters as the hub to supply most needed in the response. This can only happen if the airport is fully functional. In most case, the load is greater.