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Could Microgrids Have Made A Difference To Atlanta Airport's Power Outage Last Week?

The power outage at Hartsfield Jackson International airport in Atlanta caused much news and controversy last week. It was caused due to a fire due to an electrical failure located inside a switchgear box.  

In the fiasco’s aftermath, several solutions have been put forward. The most prominent one, of course, relates to boosting smart grid capabilities for the airport. But, Georgia Power, which is a unit of Southern Co., already claims to have made substantial investments in smart grid technologies, such as Fault Location, Isolation and Service Restoration (FLISR). It has also installed 715 self-healing circuits. Georgia Power officials were unable to switch backup capabilities because the failed line and backup lines were located within the same tunnel. They are said to be considering encasing cables in concrete or driving transmission and distribution lines through separate lines.    

There might be another possible solution: Microgrids.

State authorities in Georgia have already set the ball rolling in that direction by asking Georgia Power whether it had considered investigating the installation of functional microgrids, one that derived power from renewable energy resources, at Atlanta airport. The electric company had acquired PowerSecure, a North Carolina-based company that installs microgrids, early last year.    

While no major airport in the world has, so far, installed microgrids to power its operations, several are testing its efficacy. For example, Denver International Airport recently partnered with Panasonic and Xcel energy to construct a microgrid in its parking garage building. The microgrid is powered by solar panels and energy storage. Among other benefits, the microgrid improves Denver Airport’s power reliability and could be used as a springboard for future aviation projects. The John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City also plans to use microgrids to power a “Mad Men” era terminal in 2018.  

Perhaps, the most prominent case is that of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority (SDCRAA), which completed a 12 KV microgrid last year. According to a paper that discussed the business case for renewable energy at the nation’s airports, the project’s aim was to feed the San Diego airport’s terminals and reduce dependence on outside energy sources. “The goals are to island the airport for a portion of the year and to stabilize energy use by 2035 when the airport is projected to maximize its capacity. The microgrid will be able to support a variety of power distribution and generation projects around the airport,” the report’s authors write. Among the drivers for implementing renewable energy (and microgrids) are environmental and financial sustainability as well as resiliency.  

But that paper is a largely optimistic take on the technology. As the article I linked to earlier states, it is difficult for power companies to justify costs in microgrid projects. This is because there are no incentives in place for utilities to recover their investment either through subsidies or by charging ratepayers. The latter problem means that Georgia power cannot charge all of its customers to provide critical power facilities at Atlanta airport.  

But microgrids are turning out to be a cost-effective technology for small airports around the country. For example, Humboldt County Airport along the California Coast has calculated that it can save as much as 65% of its energy bill by installing a microgrid on its premises.  


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