January 3, 2018

Powerless in Atlanta

By Lewis Milford

Any investigation into the massive power outage at Atlanta’s international airport last month should not only look back to see what went wrong. Rather, it should look forward to how the airport could use new technologies like solar and battery storage to prevent such disasters from happening again.

Because diesel backup generators failed to function during the 11-hour outage, there was a complete breakdown in power supply at the airport. The consequences of the power outage impacted hundreds of thousands of people, and left security at the airport in the dark.

According to the previous Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, who was stuck in another airport due to the outage, “there is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source.” He said the electric design in place was a “total and abject failure.”

The investigation into this calamity might find flaws with the design of the electrical system, or maybe its maintenance, or other factors. But to be successful, it should consider new ways to deliver more resilient power with technologies like solar and storage in the future. Doing more of the same, investing only in more diesel generators and utility power upgrades, is not the answer.

Unlike standby generators, solar+storage systems operate 365 days a year, providing clean power, reducing utility costs, and generating new revenue streams for the system owners. The combination of solar and storage is the 21st century solution to provide power when the grid goes down.

Resilient power systems are now being installed in critical facilities all over the country—in schools, shelters, fire and police stations, and hospitals.

These systems are also now under consideration at airports to prevent the sort of disaster that occurred in Atlanta. Indeed, city officials in Burlington, Vermont are now looking to solar and battery technologies for use at the Burlington International Airport to ensure that power outages don’t cripple that airport’s operations.

A few months ago, the Burlington Electric Department and the Burlington Airport issued a request for proposal to install a battery storage and solar microgrid with “the ability to power the Airport in an outage.” This system, which is expected to be in operation by the end of 2018, is designed to “isolate the airport circuit from the [utility power] distribution supply when the source is lost.” By islanding the system from the grid, the “solar array at the Airport [would] be able to resume operation during an outage”—by powering the batteries with solar to keep the power on.

In the RFP, the electric department also asked for bidders to design the system to reduce the airport’s electric bills: “In addition to providing a back-up power supply to the Airport in the event there is a loss of source, the energy storage system will be used for peak load shaving, energy arbitrage, and other wholesale market actions as economical.”

So, apart from dealing with outages, solar and storage can save airports money on their electric bills. According to a recent study by Clean Energy Group and the National Energy Research Lab, Georgia has some of the highest commercial demand charges in the country, meaning commercial facilities in Georgia – like the airport – can save significant amounts of money by using energy storage to reduce demand charges.

These monthly charges are collected by the utility from its commercial customers, based on the customer’s peak demand for electricity each month. They could represent almost half of a big electricity user’s electric bill.

Tens of thousands of commercial customers in Georgia may pay high enough demand charges to warrant a close look at energy storage. Batteries could reduce these peaks and save customers thousands of dollars off their electric bills.

Our study did not look at individual customers, but the Atlanta airport, like other large commercial utility customers, is likely paying high demand charges to Georgia Power. That’s a cost that the city should consider in its evaluation of new solar and storage systems. It might be possible to get “resiliency for free,” with the savings in demand charges applied to investments in solar and storage.

The bottom line is that Atlanta should learn from this tragedy and adopt new solar and storage systems in any new retrofit of the airport’s power system. Solar and storage can provide power resiliency, bill savings, and environmental benefits.

Installing more of the same old energy technologies that failed, and have failed when most needed in disasters all over the country, is not a sensible path for airport officials. If they proceed with new technologies like solar+storage going forward, they could significantly reduce the risk of another major power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson in the future.

This blog post was also published in Renewable Energy World.

Photo Credit


Associated CEG Initiative(s)

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