Navigant Research Blog

Getting Smarter, Airports Become Cleantech Hubs

Mackinnon Lawrence — July 3, 2012

An airport may not seem like the most obvious platform to deploy sweeping smart energy upgrades.  Globally, airports represent only a fraction of the building infrastructure worldwide – accounting for around 1% of commercial square footage globally, according to Pike Research’s Global Building Stock Database report.

Integrated with sustainability measures, though, airports have the potential to champion energy efficiency and smart energy efforts worldwide while also boosting their host cities economically.  With large footprints and plenty of open space around runways, there are a number of low-hanging fruit opportunities that have yet to be exploited.

Take Berlin, which is counting on its new Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt (BER) to give the city a major economic push while at the same time making it a vital transport hub.  The airport will incorporate sophisticated recycled heat and power systems to reduce operating costs, and draw on Brandenburg’s leadership in renewable energy innovation.  The new airport “is a crucial stage in Berlin’s return to becoming a global city,” Burkhard Kieker, CEO of the tourism organization visitBerlin, told CNBC.

Meanwhile New Songdo, in South Korea, provides a glimpse of the continued integration of smart cities and airports.  The project is squarely focused on streamlining economic activity between South Korea and lucrative markets in Japan, China, and further afield.  As an incentive to New Songdo’s developers, the Korean government has agreed to construct a 7-mile, 6-lane bridge from New Songdo City directly to Incheon International Airport and provide all utilities.  Incheon, for its part, aims to be carbon neutral by 2013 and plans to build a new eco-friendly passenger terminal that will source power from solar panel and wind turbine installations.

While airports may be viewed as platforms for smart energy integration, it’s the potential for highly visible demonstration projects that is particularly exciting.  Three key aspects of airports make them ideal platforms for integrating smart energy technologies:

Smart City Meets the Aerotropolis

In his book, Aerotropolis, John D. Kasarda explains, “Airports will shape business location and urban development in the 21st century as much as highways did in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th and seaports in the 18th.”  This is significant because airports have become an unavoidable exchange point along the supply chain for the global exchange of goods and services.  According to Kasarda, one-third of all products consumed are shipped by air.  He estimates that passenger and cargo service will double or triple over the next 20 years.  Airports have become hubs of economic activity unto themselves, as evidenced by the integration of high-end retail as well as artistic and recreational attractions.

The idea of an aerotropolis shares many parallels with the Smart City concept, which Pike Research has discussed in past reports and in its recent Sustainable Megacity webinar.  Multi-dimensional in form and function, smart cities aim to integrate clean technology into a cohesive ecosystem, improving the lives of residents while facilitating sustainable, economic growth.  Similarly, the aerotropolis is a complex ecosystem of technology, infrastructure, and functionality requiring 24/7 power and thermal conditioning.  Any disruption in power can lead to significant economic loss for airlines and for the businesses that reside onsite, and in the worst case frustrate international aid efforts in the event of a significant natural disaster.  These attributes make airports attractive targets for distributed generation projects.

Closed Ecosystem

One of the unique characteristics of airports is that they are closed systems.  This reduces the administrative complexity of integrating innovative solutions (less stakeholders to satisfy than a large city, for example), while also skirting many of the infrastructure challenges associated with clean technology deployments in the broader market.

As my colleague, Anissa Dehamna, explains in her recent blog on port policies, “Although vehicles (trains, trucks, ships) carry goods away from ports, the fleets and activities at a port itself remain within a fixed area.  This makes them ideal for alternative fuel fleets because infrastructure can be installed at a few key sites in a port and then entire fleets can be fueled.”  The same is true for airports.  Refueling of ground fleets, for example – baggage carts, fuel trucks, and tow tractors – is made easier by the fact that such vehicles operate around a hub where refueling can take place around the clock.

Concentration of Demand

Like ports, concentration of demand for things like fuel at airports overcomes many obstacles preventing the widespread scale-up of clean technology solutions like biofuels.  With biomass (feedstock) resources unevenly distributed, aggregation and processing can be prohibitively expensive.  For this reason, municipal solid waste (MSW) has been targeted by a number of companies as a potentially low-cost feedstock for biofuels.  Through advanced gasification pathways, these companies are aiming to produce jet fuel for commercial aviation partners in a growing number of projects worldwide, such as at London’s Heathrow and other sites internationally.

By 2015, fast-growing China is aiming to build 70 new airports and expand 100 of its current ones.  Growth in the Middle East, and to a lesser extent, Europe, will allow for sustainability and clean technology to be increasingly integrated into these facilities.  Whether greenfield builds, retrofits, or expansions of existing airports, smart airports have the potential to be showcase projects that can raise the profile of their host cities and accelerate the deployment of clean technologies.

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