Airports of Tomorrow: From Passenger to Energy Hubs

Jennifer Desharnais by Jennifer Desharnais | Mar 16, 2023

By Laia Barbarà, Lead, Industry Decarbonisation, Aviation, World Economic Forum and Jennifer Desharnais, Director, Sustainability and Environmental Protection, ACI World

  • Airports are at the heart of the decarbonization challenge and on the front line to provide solutions.
  • Discover five ways in which airports are becoming energy hubs.
  • The World Economic Forum, in partnership with ACI World, will be launching the Airports of Tomorrow initiative to address the energy, infrastructure and financing needs of airports in the coming decades.

Airports are at the heart of the decarbonization challenge and on the front line to provide solutions. They are complex infrastructures that rely on intertwined interdependencies between multiple stakeholders. Airport-controlled activities account for ∼3% of the aviation industry’s total emissions. For this reason, airports are now rethinking how their infrastructures could be designed and operated to reduce their overall environmental footprint and increase their positive economic impact.

The concept of airports as energy hubs refers to building a unique airport ecosystem that places renewable energy production at the center of its operations to decarbonize all airport-related activities and those in their vicinity. Recognizing that this will require significant time and investment, we outline the five areas in which some airports can start embracing this transition:

1. Driving economic growth for communities

Airports are not just facilities for aircraft to land and take off. They have a key integrating role to play. They are also economic poles where businesses establish, where the economy prospers and where people live. Their development as energy hubs could underpin opportunities for economic growth and diversification, green jobs creation and industrialization, and educational opportunities around these green energy sectors. Airports can also help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and industrial sites in their surroundings to decarbonize, as these companies would likely struggle to fund a transition to hydrogen or equivalent technology on their own; but with an airport leading the way, others could take up the opportunity.

2. Electrification of the airport ecosystem

Airports are small to medium size cities and consume large amounts of energy. To meet the energy needs of airports in a clean and steady manner, holistic electrification of the whole airport ecosystem is needed – ranging from mobility from, to and at the airport, both airside and landside, and including the production of clean energy. The right mix of these solutions could drastically cut airport emissions.

Airports have the potential to be an energy vector for airside land mobility, including trucks, buses and ground support equipment, as well as airport ground access, such as public buses, shuttles, taxis and carpooling vehicles. For this to happen, airports must become energy hubs capable of producing and distributing abundant, cost-effective clean energy. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, electrification of the airport ecosystem also entails significant benefits, such as increased local air quality, energy cost savings, enhanced energy security and a positive impact on the local community.

3. Airports as hydrogen hubs

Today’s airport hubs are first and foremost big energy demand aggregators. As such, they could produce economies of scale for on-site hydrogen production and liquefaction. This would not only allow the decarbonization of their own operations, but also the downstream ones – including the emissions of the industry and businesses located around them. In addition, such a solution would eliminate the need to transport hydrogen from the production facilities to the airport, avoiding additional emissions.

4. Sustainable aviation fuels providers

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are the biggest part of the solution to decarbonize aviation. Even though airports are typically not involved in fuel procurement, they can be key players in facilitating their deployment. All stakeholders involved in the SAF production, transportation and distribution chain can partner together to share best practices and conduct feasibility studies and pilots.

5. Energy efficiency practices

Lastly, airports require vast amounts of energy for heating and cooling buildings and terminals, usually provided by off-site electricity generation. Airport operators in most cases have a limited ability to change the electricity grid, therefore, the environmental footprint of heating and cooling could be mitigated through hydrogen or other renewable energy sources.

Airports of Tomorrow – the new initiative

With the aim of finding answers to these and other questions, the World Economic Forum together with ACI World will be launching Airports of Tomorrow. This initiative will mobilize stakeholders, from the airport ecosystem and beyond, to address some of the key questions such as: how to support global grid decarbonization? How can we incentivize and facilitate airports’ access to green finance? What are the anticipated energy and infrastructure needs of the airports of the future? How can we effectively support the development of viable business cases and partnerships supporting the airports’ transition?

“It is an exciting time for airports: the energy transition presents them with an opportunity to lead and change the future of aviation for the better. However, the importance of collaboration across the entire aviation ecosystem cannot be understated. It is imperative to all stakeholders, and especially travellers and communities. This is why the partnership between the World Economic Forum and ACI World is so important. ‘Airports of Tomorrow’ will equip airports with the right tools to lead the sustainable transition needed to accommodate the growth of passenger traffic, expected to reach 19.3 billion passengers by 2041. “ ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira

Airports are embracing innovation and change, including emerging and disruptive technologies, to promote a positive transformation of the aviation ecosystem and a transition to net zero. Doing so is the only way forward. It will strengthen the airports’ role in contributing positively to the sustainable development of the regions they serve by enhancing the well-being and financial health of local communities and contributing to a global and just energy transition. With the support from governments and the collaboration of stakeholders along the aviation ecosystem, including energy producers, policymakers and the finance community at large, together we can make the net-zero airport transition a success story, while enhancing a sustainable and resilient future for the Airports of Tomorrow.

Laia Barbarà is the Industry Decarbonization Lead for Aviation at the World Economic Forum, working to achieve net-zero flying through public-private cross-sectoral partnerships. She is an Aeronautical Engineer and holds a PhD in Climate Change Mitigation. Laia counts with experience supporting the transition to a net-zero economy within the UN system and across the public, private and academic sectors.

Jennifer Desharnais

Jennifer Desharnais

Director Sustainability and Environmental Protection
Jennifer has developed a comprehensive understanding of the travel and tourism industry, with more than 18 years’ experience in aviation, hospitality, events, and tour operators. She holds a Bachelors’ degree in Business Administration and obtained an Executive MSc degree in Air Transport Management from Cranfield University in the UK, and submitted her thesis on the topic of sustainable aviation fuels. She is also pursuing a Certificate in Advanced Studies in Sustainable Tourism Management. She worked several years for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in both Geneva and Montreal, primarily with ground handling providers through different working groups, and with a focus on the Standard Ground Handling & Service Level Agreement and the Airport Handling Manual. Throughout her career, she has successfully built and maintained strong relationships and partnerships with various industry stakeholders. She is the ICAO CAEP Observer and ACI Secretary of the World Environment Standing Committee.
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