ECONOMICS Last modified on July 21, 2013

Smooth operator

LeighFisher’s Annie Lindseth and Zoe Haseman and Albuquerque’s Felix Vivian reflect on several projects that reduce Albuquerque International Sunport’s costs by making it more energy efficient.

Energy efficiency is a powerful cost reduction tool capturing the attention of airports across the world.

And, it is not difficult to see why, as airports have traditionally been big energy users, with a host of equipment ranging from sophisticated baggage and security systems to lighting, heating and air conditioning systems all leaving their mark on monthly utility bills.

Forward thinking airports find ways to meet these demands using less energy, and they save money in the process as energy costs typically represent 10% to 25% of total airport operating expenses.

At a representative set of airports analysed by LeighFisher, these operating costs grew over 10% annually during the three-year period from 2007 to 2010.

Not every year guarantees such rapid growth, but wise airport operators are certainly aware of the threat that rising energy costs pose to their finances. And some gateways, like Albuquerque International Sunport, are already disrupting this trend with cost saving energy efficiency initiatives that are specifically tailored to airports.

Sunport’s case, shown in the chart opposite, is particularly compelling because its energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives played a key role in its purchasing of 11% less electricity from its utility provider in 2012 than in 2007, while the price of the electricity they purchased rose over 30% from $0.06 per kilowatt hour to $0.09 per kilowatt hour in the same time period.

Energy efficiency strategies have already aided Sunport in saving over $2.5 million on their 2012 utility costs over a 2007 baseline. Many of the initiatives applied at the New Mexico located airport are broadly applicable to airports across the world.   

LED lighting

Investing in LED runway and terminal lighting, for example, can yield significant utility bill savings when airports use them to replace traditional fluorescent bulbs.

Light emitting diode technology boasts a longer useful life and more efficient energy use than its traditional lighting competitors, which justifies its higher purchase price.

In its 2012 paper, Air Transport and Energy Efficiency, the World Bank estimates that LED technology can improve airfield lighting wattage by up to 90%.

Combining this advanced technology with airfield best practices such as airside lighting controls to limit lighting when it is not needed makes lighting upgrades even more effective.

Albuquerque International Sunport began installing LED runway lighting in November 2008, and to date efficient LEDs have replaced 1,836 traditional bulbs. This efficient technology is used for taxiway centreline, take-off/hold, touch down zone, runway guard, taxiway edge, and illuminated guidance lighting.

Efficient lighting produced measurable, salient utility bill reductions, accounting for over 460,000 fewer kilowatt-hours of electricity purchased to power the airfield in 2012 than in the previous year.

Heating and ventilation

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) upgrades curb fuel consumption and improve energy efficiency in ways that are less obvious to passengers but surprisingly effective.

Albuquerque is currently upgrading the four boilers in its Central Utility Plant. The project includes replacing two boilers, which were installed in 1987, with efficient modern equipment and installing ultra-low nitrous oxide burners on all four boilers.

These combined measures will reduce fuel consumption and limit air pollution, enabling Sunport to fund a portion of the project with a Voluntary Airport Low Emission (VALE) programme grant from the Federal Aviation Administration.

These boiler upgrades will reduce natural gas consumption by 6.2% annually, saving over $16,000 per year at 2013 natural gas prices.

While boilers and burners might not inspire the public to the same degree as a green building or renewable energy project would, the efficiency benefit of replacing old equipment with newer models is well documented.

Sunport’s example provides a strong case for all airports to reexamine their HVAC equipment and its associated energy consumption.


From 2007 to 2012, Albuquerque International Sunport saved over $2.5m on their utility bills while the unit price of electricity  increased by over 30%.  Source: LeighFisher, 2013.

Building Automation Systems

Building Automation Systems are an excellent way to optimise energy use in existing buildings. Sunport installed a building automation system in its terminal building in 2007, and later extended it to control parking lot lighting.

It provides a centralised interface for making the building’s energy decisions and it enables managers to adjust lighting and indoor temperatures at non-peak times, curbing energy use in a way that is customised to the airport’s specific needs and operating hours.

Systems like this demonstrate that airports can reduce indoor energy use significantly through retrofits in existing facilities.

New, highly efficient buildings often make headlines, but airports can step closer to optimising their energy use through simply integrating new technologies, like the Sunport’s building automation system, into existing facilities.

Renewable energy

On-site renewable energy generation allows airports to reduce their utility purchases and shield themselves from rising utility rates that are outside of their control.

Producing electricity on-site also eliminates losses from transmitting electricity from power plants to the point of use, which average 6% in the United States.

Many airports also choose renewable energy because of its air quality and public relations benefits. From a cost perspective, renewable energy is also becoming increasingly attractive. Solar photovoltaic panels, for example, have declined in price by an average of 27% in the last year alone, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, with the exact pricing depending on the technology in question.  

Though on-site electricity generation is a different strategy from a traditional energy efficiency project, it provides airports with similar cost savings and emission reduction benefits.

Albuquerque International Sunport has installed multiple solar arrays over its on-site parking lots, and has an additional array under construction.

The installation of these arrays illustrates the remarkable falling cost of solar. The gateway’s array purchased in 2012 cost 39% less than the array purchased in 2010. Costs fell from $6.61 per watt to $4.02 per watt, including installation and supporting equipment. Analysts predict these costs will continue to decrease as a result of oversupply and more efficient manufacturing in the solar photovoltaic market.

As most airports have rooftops or land available for installation, on-site renewable energy generation is becoming an increasingly attractive investment.

Many airport operators choose to partner with a solar provider to implement and manage their solar panels throughout their useful lives. Through this partnership, airport operators are able to negotiate reduced electricity rates as a result of their solar energy production.

This arrangement is called a Power Purchase Agreement and provides airports with secure access to electricity at stable prices, which can markedly reduce operating costs.

In addition to making financial sense, innovative energy initiatives can improve any airport’s environmental impact, and efforts to make the airport more sustainable – financially, environmentally, and socially – rarely go unnoticed.

Efficient lighting, buildings, and HVAC systems, along with renewable energy, enjoy broad public support, and communities increasingly recognise their importance.

The examples from Albuquerque International Sunport provided here illustrate some excellent energy efficiency opportunities, paving the way for more airports to take advantage of these and similar strategies going forward.

About the authors

Annie Lindseth (consultant) and Zoe Haseman (associate director) both work for global airport management consulting firm LeighFisher (

Felix Vivian is sustainability program coordinator with the City of Albuquerque Aviation Department.

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