Sea-Tac Anticipates Quick & Ample Dividends from Pre-Conditioned Air Project

Jennifer Bradley
Published in: 

Green has long been the color of choice at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA); and this season, it’s more popular than ever. With a $43 million pre-conditioned air project largely complete, SEA looks forward to reducing costs to its resident airlines by $15 million per year and producing equally substantial reductions in emissions. 

But financial savings and environmental impacts aren’t the only big numbers in play. The project was awarded an $18.3 million FAA Voluntary Airport Low Emissions (VALE) grant in 2010 – the largest of its kind to date. A second $3.6 million VALE grant followed in 2011. The VALE program focuses on reducing emissions at airports designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as being in nonattainment or maintenance areas for national air quality standards.


Centralized Pre-Conditioned Air System

Seattle-Tacoma Int’l Airport

Cost: $43 million

Scope: 73 aircraft gates

$18.3 million FAA VALE grant Phase I; $3.6 million FAA VALE grant for Phase II

Expected Break Even:
1½ - 3 years

Anticipated Annual Fuel Savings:
5 million gallons/$15 million

Potential Carbon Dioxide Emission Reduction:
50,000 metric tons per year

Equipment Mfr:
Cavotec INET

Central plant constructed & system installed at 50 gates in fall 2012; remaining gates expected to be finished by spring 2013

Of Note:
Annual emissions reductions are expected to be equivalent to removing 8,900 cars from the road each year for 20 years

“It’s green all the way around,” says SEA Environmental Director Elizabeth Leavitt. “We were anxious to tackle a project that the airlines would be excited about, save them money and reduce their dependence on foreign fuel, as well as be the right thing to do environmentally.”

Big Changes

The initial push to provide pre-conditioned air at all 73 of SEA’s gates initially came from its 2009 Environmental Strategy Plan, a document that details long-term environmental sustainability goals for the airport. The project, notes Leavitt, relates directly to several of the plan’s objectives, because it will allow pilots pulling into any gate at SEA to shut off their auxiliary power units. With the airport’s new centralized system providing pre-conditioned air — chilled or warmed, depending on cabin conditions — aircraft will burn less jet fuel and release fewer associated emissions to keep passengers comfortable. In addition, diesel generators will no longer be needed at each gate to run ground power units.

The resulting benefits will be huge, says Leavitt. Airlines are expected to save $15 million annually by using 5 million fewer gallons of jet fuel per year. (Savings estimates are based on current costs of about $3 per gallon.) In addition, the airport will help reduce greenhouse gases, she adds. The reduction in aircraft emissions is equated to removing 8,900 cars from the road each year for the next 20 years.

“With these sorts of savings, the payoff here is between 1.5 and three years,” Leavitt notes.

Phase I of the project is scheduled to be completed by year-end. It includes construction of the central plant, portions of the chilled and heated water distribution system, purchase of the gate delivery equipment, and installation at 50 gates in Concourse A and the south satellite concourse. The remaining gates are scheduled to be finished in spring 2013.

Cavotec INET is supplying the new equipment, including 73 of its Central System Air Handling Units — one for each gate. The company is also supervising the installation, start up and commissioning of the entire project.

Leveraging Local Advantage

The new central plant is a cost-saver in itself, and the airport’s location helps the cause, too. “In the Pacific Northwest, we have very cheap hydroelectric power compared to other parts of the country,” says Leavitt. Innovative professionals in the airport’s Infrastructure Department developed a way to take advantage of lower nighttime energy costs by super-chilling the air for the system at night to stay cool during the day, she explains.

Conversely, the new system integrates extra steam from the central plant into the pre-conditioned air system to provide heat for aircraft — again reducing overhead costs, notes Russ Simonson, the airport’s senior environmental program manager.

SEA will maintain the system, and ground service providers for each airline will connect aircraft to it when air is needed, notes Simonson. Because most ground handlers understand pre-conditioned air as it is used at other airports, training sessions are being held to discuss the system’s components, and to help delineate where the airport’s responsibilities end and the carriers’ pick up.

While many other airports’ systems are decentralized, SEA will be the largest airport to provide pre-conditioned air to all gates and through one system, notes Leavitt. 

Securing Funds

“We had to work with the FAA to secure the VALE grant and then work with the airlines to convince them it was a smart investment,” chronicles Leavitt. The latter, she notes, wasn’t difficult, given the project’s short duration and quick financial payoff.

The strong business case Simonson presented for adding the pre-conditioned air system was instrumental in obtaining funding, Leavitt says, because the FAA chooses VALE projects that yield the highest level of emissions reductions for the least amount of federal money.

Projections prepared for the VALE application show that the new system will reduce aircraft emissions by an estimated 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. That makes SEA’s cost roughly $10,000 per ton of emissions reduced, a level the FAA considers appropriate for such projects.

Calculating the reduction estimates was the most tedious part of the project, adds Leavitt. According to Simonson, working with the area’s local air agency was essential, and he urges other airports do the same if applying for a VALE grant. “They validate for the FAA that the emissions reductions you are claiming will occur are true,” he explains.

The airport’s unique 12-year participation in an emissions reduction credit bank run by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency was instrumental in its grant application, Leavitt notes. She lauds the agency for recognizing and rewarding the airport’s voluntary measures to reduce emissions. 

“Visionary” is how she describes the FAA’s VALE grant program. “They understand that reducing pollution at airports is important to the sustainability of our industry,” she relates.

Simonson agrees with the FAA’s recommendation for early adoption of emission reduction projects. “Start early in conceptualizing your project and engage other necessary players from the beginning,” he advises. He also recommends working with the local FAA airport district office as well as the airport director, facilities/infrastructure group and budget department to gain initial support for the project and move it along through completion.

FAA’s technical report for VALE is a great resource, he adds, noting that it’s easy to read and understand, and it explains the opportunities for seeking VALE funding.

The FAA considers SEA’s project a “good example of how the collaboration between the FAA and airport sponsor can significantly improve air quality at an airport and help an airport achieve sustainability goals at the same time.” By the same token, it encourages other airports to pursue projects of their own.

Since 2005, 57 emission-lowering projects at 33 airports have been funded with VALE grants. Collectively, they have reduced ozone emissions by approximately 370 tons per year, say FAA officials.

Leavitt boils SEA’s pre-conditioned air project down to producing an ongoing source of emissions reduction and reducing fuel costs for the airlines. “It’s just good all around,” she concludes. “Green is the color of money and environment in this case.”

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