This article originally ran on Forbes.com on February 13, 2023. All rights reserved.
Daniel B. Markind is a Forbes.com energy column contributor. The views expressed in this article are not to be associated with the views of Flaster Greenberg PC.
John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City is in the process of completing its total revamping of Terminal 1. Aside from the nearly $10 billion in upgrades, the new terminal will boast what authorities at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are calling the largest rooftop solar array in New York City. This will be constructed in a “microgrid,” created so that Terminal 1 will be the “first resilient airport transit hub in the New York region that can function independently of the power grid, to maintain 100 percent of airport operations during power disruptions…”
The JFK microgrid will handle 11.34 megawatts of power, with 7.66 mW coming from rooftop solar, 3.68 mW from fuel cells, 2 megawatts/4 megawatt-hours of battery energy storage, and a process to use reclaimed heat to generate chilled water and to heat hot water. The grid is compartmentalized in four “power islands,” with each island able to function independently as an integrated energy system containing generation sources and storage of energy. The rooftop PV system, containing over 13,000 solar panels, making it possibly the largest rooftop solar array in the United States, is designed to produce enough energy to power over 1,000 homes for a full year.
When completed, the JFK microgrid will be the second such self-contained energy system at an American airport, following the microgrid previously designed for Pittsburgh International Airport. However, it will differ in a very important way. The Pittsburgh microgrid, which is capable of producing 23 mW, contains five natural gas generators using gas that is located literally under the airport as a main power source and is derived from fracking, along with renewables such as solar energy supplied by approximately 10,000 solar panels. JFK has no similar energy source located on or near the airport, so it must derive its power from non-fracking sources.
The key to any microgrid, and especially to the JFK microgrid, is to determine if the energy inputs are sufficient to meet the demands of the outputs. With so much of the energy to be created from renewable sources, especially with regard to solar, it remains a very open question as to whether or not the renewable energy, even with substantial battery storage, will be sufficient to power the Terminal and all of the other expected uses and needs for power (electric vehicles, etc.). It is estimated that large hub airports might require one Terawatt of power to fully operate. The JFK microgrid relates to only one terminal, but the energy required to operate that single terminal and all related uses will be immense.
The first phase of New Terminal 1, containing 14 gates, is expected to open in 2026. The remaining 9 gates are scheduled to open in 2030New Terminal 1 is to be the largest international terminal at JFK. As previously noted, the energy plan is to produce 7.66 mW from the solar panels, with the remaining 3.68 mW coming from the fuel cells. Interestingly, and not surprisingly given the size of the project, the fuel cells will be powered by natural gas to start. The hope is that they will be converted in the future to biogas or hydrogen.
If nothing else, the JFK microgrid represents a triumph of thought for taking action in seeking to power our lives using mainly renewable sources. All airports right now are under substantial pressure to decarbonize, as the aviation sector accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. In some states, the pressure to decarbonize quickly may threaten the integrity of the airport’s performance, as there may not be sufficient electricity available to convert to carbonless sources properly, or fully. In addition, many who push for immediate electrification on the demand side of the equation often just assume that supply will be there to meet demand when needed, but their assumptions do not always factor in how difficult it can be to locate, and develop, truly carbonless sources for those increased electrical needs.
That’s where the fuel mix becomes critical. JFK will be relying on natural gas as its backup fuel, which makes sense given the still immature state of today’s electrical generation technology but is, no doubt, not an aspect of the project with which more aggressive “carbon free” supporters are particularly happy. Still, given that reality, JFK will have to ensure that it will have sufficient power from the fuel cells alone to make up for the reduction in solar energy during cloudy days and if the battery storage is not sufficient or otherwise does not work as well as hoped. To ensure that there are no such issues, JFK will need to be careful that it does have a sufficient supply of natural gas as the ultimate backup, which is not necessarily a given. This is, especially in New York State and City considering the politics in that region, which we have written about before, strongly disfavoring fossil fuel pipelines.
This is the core difference between New York and Pittsburgh. The stopgap (but non-"green") energy for PIT is already onsite. The stopgap energy for JFK is not.
While the hope is to reduce if not eliminate the natural gas fuel cells at JFK as renewable technology improves and becomes more reliable, it is to the credit of – and acceptance of reality by – the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that it is planning this backup power source now, and is not prematurely jettisoning fossil fuel use for the purpose of claiming environmental responsibility. From the standpoint of JFK, first and foremost the Port Authority must ensure that the terminal can operate properly, and that cannot occur based on environmental window dressing alone. We will not know the success of the JFK Microgrid concept until a major power outage occurs on the main grid, but let’s hope the project developers are planning based on cold hard facts and not just wishful thinking.
Therefore, whether the JFK microgrid represents a practical solution remains to be seen. Most airports are not like PIT in that they do not have readily available natural gas or other fuel sources literally onsite. At the very least, it’s a good conceptual start to what is sure to be a decades-long attempt to provide the clean, efficient energy that we need to power our world.
All of which begs the ultimate question of can a microgrid actually work at JFK? Certainly, the concept is to be able to have a self-contained energy system that meets all consumption needs of that system while it also acts independently of the main power grid to the greatest extent possible. However, the unanswered question is still how realistic will that be for JFK? New York Governor Hochul, along with other governors, is applying strong pressure for that State to decarbonize as quickly as possible. How realistic is that in an airport setting? Should the next winter be cold and snowy, in which case the solar panels can possibly be snowed or iced over for days or even weeks at a time, where will the power needed to service New Terminal 1 at JFK come from? If the airport has to frequently draw upon the main power grid as a backup (most microgrids are set up with this fail-safe feature), unlike Pittsburgh where that possibility exists but is less likely to happen frequently due to its natural gas backup, can what JFK is creating really stand on its own as a “microgrid” that truly does meet the energy needs for New Terminal 1 while it also optimizes carbonless energy production to the greatest extent possible? It is truly a brave new world.
Daniel B. Markind has over 35 years of experience as an airport, real estate, energy, and corporate transactional attorney. During that time, he has represented some of the largest companies in the United States in sophisticated ...
- Flaster Greenberg Proudly Champions for Support Center for Child Advocates through Philadelphia Bar Association Run/Walk
- | Press Release
- | Press Release
- Flaster Greenberg Proudly Sponsors 2023 Philadelphia Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Diversity Reception| Press Release
- | Press Release