JFK Airport is getting a new terminal covered by what developers are describing as the largest rooftop solar array in New York City — and for any airport in the country. The solar panels are one piece of an island of energy known as a microgrid, and this one could generate enough juice to power 3,570 average U.S. homes.
Except it won’t be able to do so, because the airport’s new terminal won’t contribute to the broader power supply. The solar power it generates will stay within JFK — and any extra energy it might need when solar panels aren’t enough may come from the regional grid. In other words, the terminal will still be reliant on power suppliers like Con Edison. The terminal will only operate independently of the grid in the case of emergencies.
The project is considered a win for resiliency because the airport is hardening itself against potential blackouts during storms, a major concern for any coastal infrastructure. But one energy researcher said the project won’t strengthen the larger regional grid, from which the airport terminal could still suck a lot of power. Part of the issue centers around local laws that prevent microgrids from providing power to the community at large.
“If you look towards the public good, towards social welfare, this is definitely a missed opportunity,” said Dr. Bolun Xu, an assistant professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University.
To power its new terminal, which is set to open in 2026, JFK has hired AlphaStruxure, an alternative energy solutions company, to design and implement what will actually be four new microgrids — three when the new terminal opens in 2026 and the fourth when it is completed by 2030. The microgrids will be an interdependent system of different types of power sources — in this case, more than 13,000 solar panels, batteries and fuel cells.
AlphaStruxure’s CEO Juan Macias said in an interview that this will be a big boon as the climate continues to change.
“We have more and more severe weather events and of greater intensity, so if such an event were to hit the area we would be able to operate disconnected from the grid,” he said.
This is exactly the point of a microgrid, according to Xu. His research is focused on renewable energy systems, with a special eye toward renewable electricity. He calls these systems the future of providing security in the face of environmental disasters.
“That’s definitely the direction,” said Xu.
He said there are already a handful of microgrid pilot projects around New York City that can keep running during blackouts — and offer places for people to charge phones and power other necessities. He said JFK’s terminal could be New York’s biggest microgrid project yet.
Batteries connected to the grid, when fully charged, can export energy back into the regional grid, strengthening it and providing power for others. This project won’t do that, according to Macias. AlphaStruxure said local regulations prevent it from contributing to the broader grid.
Xu also added that depending on how the company uses its microgrid, the building could still be a pretty big demand on the region’s power plants. There are several times during an average day when the terminal couldn’t rely just on solar power — especially during what Xu called peak demand times. But he said if the AlphaStruxure project uses its batteries during these dips in solar production, it won’t be a large demand on the broader grid.
But AlphaStruxure said it hasn’t decided how to account for the solar dips. Xu said many companies with microgrids choose not to use their battery supply, save for emergencies. Batteries like these, just like the ones in your cellphone, wear down over time.
“I will not be surprised if it decided not to use the battery at all. In that case, yeah, the airport will be a big demand on the grid,” said Xu.
For its part, AlphaStruxure argued it will help balance out the region’s grid by taking a load off it due to its solar production.