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A giant solar microgrid is coming to New York City’s JFK airport

Some 13,000 solar panels will cover a new terminal being built at JFK, giving the airport a clean power supply that can keep operations running even in a blackout.
By Maria Gallucci

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An illustration of a large industrial complex next to a body of water with the sun setting in the background
An illustration shows the solar-powered microgrid planned at New York City's JFK Airport. (AlphaStruxure)

A sprawling new terminal at one of New York City’s top airports will be able to keep operating during grid outages thanks to a solar-powered microgrid that’s scheduled to come online starting in 2026, the project’s developer announced on Thursday.

The 11.34-megawatt microgrid at John F. Kennedy International Airport is set to feature the largest rooftop solar array on any U.S. airport or in New York City. Some 13,000 solar panels will cover the $9.5 billion New Terminal One now under construction in southeast Queens, according to AlphaStruxure, a joint venture between Schneider Electric and Carlyle Group.

Microgrids solve two of the most serious challenges, resilience and decarbonization, with a single solution,” Annette Clayton, CEO of Schneider Electric North America, said in a statement.

Along with the 7.66-megawatt rooftop solar array, the microgrid will include 2 megawatts/​4 megawatt-hours of battery energy storage. Another 3.68 megawatts’ worth of fuel cells are intended to supply backup power and generate waste heat used for cooling or heating water. The equipment will be scattered across four power islands” that, using microgrid control systems, can either operate independently or function as a single, interconnected system.

While the microgrid won’t supply 100 percent of the terminal’s daily electricity needs, it will provide enough continuous power for the 23-gate hub to keep functioning if the grid goes down — reducing the risk of canceled flights and stranded passengers, and ensuring the airport can still support emergency-relief efforts after a natural disaster.

An illustration of the planned microgrid that zooms in on individual components, including batteries
The 11.34-megawatt microgrid will include solar panels, batteries, fuel cells and a microgrid control system. (AlphaStruxure)

The JFK project shows that Schneider Electric’s microgrid technology is ready to transform our nation’s most critical infrastructure, including one of the busiest airports in the country, into a sustainable airport of the future,” Clayton added.

Airport operators nationwide are increasingly pursuing microgrid projects as power disruptions and extreme weather events become more common across the United States.

Last May, JFK experienced flight delays and widespread confusion for hours when it lost grid power. However, the major turning point for airport microgrids came back in December 2017, when an 11-hour power outage at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport caused the cancellation of thousands of flights and left 30,000 passengers in limbo. Delta Air Lines, which is headquartered in Atlanta, said it lost $40 million in pre-tax income from the outage alone.

The fact that Delta could put a number to it made [microgrid initiatives] more approachable,” Meredith Pringle, a principal at the consulting firm Converge Strategies, told Canary Media. She contributed to an extensive 2021 report and toolkit on implementing airport microgrids.

A common challenge developers face is being able to quantify what resilience” actually means for a business or critical facility. Delta’s example showed that it is worth investing in solutions to reduce an outage because now we know the cost — and spending money on a microgrid solution is probably going to be less expensive than a $40 million loss,” Pringle said.

Along with JFK, at least seven other commercial airports have installed or are building microgrids, including hubs in Denver, Detroit and Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as airports in the California cities of Redwood, San Diego and Santa Ana. Pittsburgh International Airport has the biggest microgrid of the group, with a 23-megawatt system powered by nearly 9,400 solar panels and five gas-fueled generators. (Around 60 military airfields also have microgrids.)

Nearly every other airport relies on hulking diesel generators to provide backup power; some may also have small on-site power plants that generate power for particular buildings. A key difference between those systems and a microgrid — whether it runs on fossil or renewable energy, or both — is that microgrid operators can see where the power is being used and control how backup supplies are distributed. That might mean closing a concourse and prioritizing power for the traffic-control tower and the areas where aircraft are parked and serviced.

Another potential benefit of ditching diesel generators is cleaning up the air for the people who live near or work at airports. AlphaStruxure estimates that the fuel cells used in JFK’s new microgrid will reduce health-harming emissions of nitrogen oxide by 98 percent relative to running a generator. The entire microgrid will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 38 percent compared to grid-sourced energy.

An illustration of a sprawling industrial complex at an airport lit up at dusk under clouds
An illustration shows the 23-gate New Terminal One under construction at JFK Airport. (AlphaStruxure)

Still, despite the rising interest, airports remain particularly challenging places to put up a microgrid, Pringle said. Federal, regional and state authorities typically are involved in designing and approving systems, and, as an airport’s biggest tenants, airlines often have a say in the process.

It’s a lot of moving pieces to work through in terms of getting approval, understanding who’s paying for it and designing it,” she said. That causes a bit of a roadblock for some airports.”

AlphaStruxure said it overcame this particular roadblock at JFK by providing New Terminal One with an energy-as-a-service” solution. AlphaStruxure is financing, designing, building and operating every aspect of the 11.34-megawatt microgrid. In return, the consortium of financial sponsors behind New Terminal One has agreed to make fixed payments to AlphaStruxure through a long-term power purchase agreement.

Pooja Goyal, chief investment officer of Carlyle’s global infrastructure business, likened the approach to a residential solar lease, in which a solar company installs and operates rooftop panels at no upfront cost to the homeowner.

In JFK’s case, however, The financial technology is being applied at a much larger, and I would say a much more bespoke, scale because these kinds of infrastructure projects tend to be very, very complex,” Goyal said earlier this week on a press call.

AlphaStruxure CEO Juan Macias declined to discuss how much the microgrid will cost to build and operate, telling reporters only that it was a private transaction.”

He said construction on the first phase of the JFK microgrid is slated to start next year. Three of the project’s four power islands, along with 14 airport gates, are expected to open in 2026. The remaining power island and nine gates will be finished by 2030.

Although the microgrid’s fuel cells will initially use fossil gas, AlphaStruxure intends to shift those supplies to renewable natural gas — which can refer to methane from landfills, livestock farms and wastewater treatment facilities — or hydrogen made from renewable electricity as soon as those fuels become more widely available.

That gives us a pathway to achieve net-zero emissions over the life of the project,” Macias said.

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Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.