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The Strategic and Organizational Implications of the Airport Energy Transition

Achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is the aviation industry’s most challenging long-term goal. While reducing aircraft greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) as demand for air travel continues to grow will be the single most challenging task, the ultimate set of solutions will require all industry stakeholders to make significant contributions to GHG reduction.

For airport management, the principal challenge is achieving two imperatives simultaneously:

  1. Providing sufficient power to support demands on airport, including heating and cooling, powering airport vehicles, and supporting the operations of users, including the airlines, other business partners and those accessing the airport. 
  2. Decarbonizing is the second imperative. Initiatives include the conversion of airport terminal heating and cooling systems from gas to electric; working with airlines to transition to electric ground support equipment (eGSE); and migrating, where possible, to electric rather than internal combustion engines for on-airport vehicles. Targeting these direct or Scope 1 emissions can have a significant effect. Portland International Airport (PDX), for example, is replacing its natural gas fuelled airport boilers with a new system that will reduce emissions by 83% by 2050. Other airports might be taking smaller, piecemeal approaches, both of which are valid strategies in solving this complex challenge. 

The rub for airport management teams is that most airports have insufficient clean energy capacity to support their and their users’ future needs. Obtaining that capacity requires significant investment in transmission and distribution substations and careful coordination with local and regional utilities. Some airports are also exploring microgrids, self-sufficient energy systems that support airport capacity. These can be connected to the grid, requiring coordination with utilities, and/or be operated on standalone basis to support priority airport operations, adding a degree of resilience in the event of larger power issues.

These issues cut across airport management teams, involving environmental, financial, operational, and community-oriented airport leaders. They involve new players, some of which (like utilities) have substantial political and community influence, whose interests and demands extend well beyond the needs of airports. Resolving these issues requires airport management to prioritize their use of power; like other airport infrastructure, airports cannot afford to provide unlimited resources to their users. This creates a short-term question for airport managers – as disparate users increasingly request more electricity and demand long term capacity investments, what are the highest and best uses of power, and how should airports evaluate and prioritize electrification projects?

With many industries simultaneously attempting to decarbonize and convert to cleaner energy and electrify legacy facilities, the supply chains for obtaining equipment such as transformers and charging infrastructure can run from as long as 18 months to four years, further complicating short term decision making and demanding long-term commitments in a fast-changing environment.

Recognizing these challenges, airports must make the energy transition part of their strategic plans and identify management strategies that will assess demand and supply, identify the capacity required to serve airport and users’ needs, plan the necessary infrastructure, and work with their users to design user-pay and financial strategies to support the infrastructure. C&S Companies and Steer have joined together to offer these services including strategic planning,  assessment of power needs, business partner and stakeholder strategies, and enabling financial plans. To speak with us about airport energy transitions and net zero goals, please reach out here.

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