Incorporating sustainability at airports

How planning can help airports conserve energy and water, reduce carbon and lower life-cycle costs

The U.S. aviation industry is experiencing a surge in airport expansions and improvements in response to rising demand for air travel. As airport owners plan and deliver these new facilities, they are maximizing their significant investments by incorporating solutions that conserve energy and water, reduce greenhouse gases and protect their assets by making them more resilient.

Sustainability is a top priority among U.S. airports for multiple reasons. Airports want to support their region’s well-being and economy through conscientious environmental stewardship. Driven by ambitious green initiatives, today’s facilities are meeting stricter state and federal environmental regulatory laws.

In addition, sustainable, resilient infrastructure often requires less maintenance and uses less energy, saving significant resources and money in the long term. They are more durable assets, capable of serving their communities amid extreme weather events or natural disasters.

Easy-to-follow, actionable road maps

To optimize their sustainability goals, aviation authorities may want to consider developing utility master plans. These easy-to-follow, actionable road maps are designed to help airports consider all the alternatives and identify preferred measures to improve their sustainability practices.

Creating a utility master plan involves six key steps:

  1. Collecting the data
  2. Examining the condition of existing utilities
  3. Determining existing utilities’ current and future capacities based on the airport’s infrastructure growth plan
  4. Performing an alternatives analysis
  5. Evaluating the preferred alternatives using total cost of ownership
  6. Recommending the preferred alternatives

The resulting plan is a list of prioritized short-, mid- and long-term sustainable utility projects, shaped by stakeholder input, along with range of magnitude (ROM) costs and explanations of how the initiatives will be implemented at the airport. The individual ROM cost estimates, for each solution, allows airports to choose what they want to do and when they want to do it. Projects range from decarbonizing central utility plants to conserving potable water by using reclaimed water in cooling towers and flushwater in restrooms, like the proposed Central Utility Plant at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Utility master plans are customizable and contain a wide range of options. Regardless of the plan selected, utility master plans always aim to equip airports with strategies to reduce or eliminate the largest stationary sources of greenhouse gases, conserve energy and water, mitigate utility shutdown risks, recover or adapt to severe natural events and yield superior life-cycle costs.

Utility Master Plan best practices

When developing a utility master plan, airport owners should consider these best practices to keep costs low, set attainable metrics and gain stakeholder consensus to reach sustainability goals.

  • Managing cost. Today’s utility master plans can be conducted without many of the resource-intensive, in-depth surveys performed in years past. Still, when airport managers need to consider the cost of these plans, they have found performing life-cycle cost analyses — comparing the cost of the legacy solution to the cost of the proposed sustainable alternative — a highly informative activity. Often, they discover the sustainable alternative will be far more economical in the long term. Further, federal grant programs can help airports defray the cost of developing and implementing the utility master plan. After Dallas Fort Worth International Airport secured a $116 million Airport Improvement Program grant, the airport elected to invest in a sustainable electric central utility plant (eCUP), primarily fueled by electricity purchased from renewable sources.
  • Attainable metrics. The utility master plan’s goals should be set at the right level — not so lofty they are impossible to attain and not so easily achieved that will not address appropriate levels of sustainability. Appropriate goals are achievable but still a “stretch” for the project/program. Analysis, facts (i.e., carbon calculations, electricity consumption, water usage) and investment returns will help inform the right calibrations for the program.
  • Stakeholder consensus and adoption. To develop its Airport Expansion Development Program, the City of Austin’s Department of Aviation, in collaboration with the Austin Energy Green Build Program, held individual working sessions with key stakeholders. The working sessions resulted in stakeholder ownership and consensus on the AEDP’s overall goals, some of its individual projects, and the formation of an airport sustainability committee. These working sessions can help all stakeholders understand the sustainability process and how utility master plans can help facilities reach their goals.

The right time to implement – and why it could be now

Three scenarios that often compel owners to consider and implement utility master plans include:

  • When passenger growth is increasing
  • When growth necessitates a new building, which allows the owner to add a portion of the utility master plan to the capital program and deliver both simultaneously
  • When developing the airport’s overall master plan, a tandem utility master plan can lead to major holistic projects designed to attain net-zero carbon emissions

That said, there is never a wrong time to implement a utility master plan. Because of stricter federal regulations, stakeholder expectations and the airport’s desire to improve sustainability, any time is the right time.

The ultimate goal

The reasons to incorporate sustainability at airports have never been more numerous or compelling. Sustainability is an industrywide, worldwide movement. Air carriers, tenants and passengers expect it. Sustainable, resilient infrastructure conserves resources, shrinks carbon footprints and lowers life-cycle costs. And through sustainability initiatives, airports can continue serving their regions for decades. Utility master plans provide airports with easy-to-use, actionable road maps that, when implemented, provide a better quality of life and well-being for everyone.


James Grant, PE, MBA, BSME ME, ENV-SP
Sustainable Energy and Utilities Director
HNTB Corporation

James Grant has more than 40 years of industry experience and currently serves as director for the energy & utilities services group in HNTB’s Bellevue, Washington office. His areas of expertise include central utility plants, renewable energy systems, distributed resources, energy conservation and aviation fueling systems for airports. He has led over a dozen utility master plans for some of the largest airports in the world, including O’Hare International Airport, Atlanta International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport. Jim has served as a Sustainable Infrastructure Advisory Board member on the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard since 2010.

Connect with him on LinkedIn.


Caroline Pinegar, AICP, ENV SP
Environmental Project Manager
HNTB Corporation

Caroline Pinegar is a senior project manager with HNTB, specializing primarily in environmental documentation, sustainability, and land use planning. Caroline earned her Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SP) credential from the Institute of Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) in 2014 and is currently the Chairperson of ISI’s Training and Credentialing Committee. She also participates in ISI’s Airports & Envision Working Group. Leveraging her credentials as an ENV SP, Caroline effectively involves relevant stakeholders and assists clients in formulating practical sustainability objectives and strategies, thereby ensuring the successful integration of sustainability from the initial stages of project planning.

Connect with her on LinkedIn.