Interview with Chad Reese

May 13, 2024

San Diego International Airport has been part of the Airport Carbon Accreditation programme since 2016 and today is one of the three most advanced airports in terms of carbon management in North America holding Level 4+ Transition accreditation. What motivated SAN to join the programme and progress to its highest levels?

San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which has put in place a formal Sustainability Policy that includes proactively addressing greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of climate change through airport operations, planning, and development decisions. The Airport Carbon Accreditation  programme created a much-needed carbon management framework that was tailored to airport’s unique governance and operational characteristics. With the Airport Carbon Accreditation levels, it also allows an airport to somewhat benchmark their efforts/achievements against other airports, while considering the uniqueness of each airport.

Can you share any updates on recent or upcoming decarbonisation projects at the airport? What innovative technologies and practices have you recently introduced or are planning to implement to reduce your carbon footprint?

The Authority has a Sustainability Management Programme that includes specific plans for decarbonisation. The Carbon Neutrality Plan, Clean Transportation Plan, and Strategic Energy Plan call out initiatives related to decarbonisation. A few examples of recent projects that were listed in these plans include using renewable diesel for airside vehicles and equipment, and installing infrastructure to enable the conversion of ground support equipment (GSE) to electric.

Design of the new Terminal 1 included the integration of a heat recovery chiller and thermal energy storage (TES) to further enhance the airport’s energy efficiency and environmental sustainability efforts. A heat recovery chiller provides substantial carbon and particulate reduction and energy savings, by capturing energy that would otherwise be wasted, making it much more efficient than a traditional chiller. An integrated thermal energy storage system expands the hours of recovered heat from the heat recovery chiller by storing the energy for use at another time. The Authority also conducted a study to convert the Central Utility Plant (CUP) at SAN to electric and anticipates pursuing implementation within the next few years.

As the construction of a brand new Terminal 1 progresses, set to introduce 30 new gates and expand car parking facilities, could you shed light on the sustainability features incorporated into this development? How will these elements contribute to achieving your decarbonisation goals?

There are two categories of emissions: those created through the creation and transportation of materials (known as embodied carbon), and those associated with operations of the building, including lighting, heating, cooling and electrical demands (known as operational carbon). Early engagement and outreach to the local supply chain was designed to provide sustainable education to the market, as well as to encourage transparency and disclosure of the global warming potential within their materials so that specifications could be informed by performance and environmental impact. This is the embodied carbon piece. This strategy provides co-benefits to the community, as the three largest suppliers of concrete now provide transparency, which the entire county can leverage for thoughtful selection of low-carbon products.

Operational carbon reductions included setting energy use intensity (EUI) targets into the new terminal design. Operational energy was reduced by a variety of strategies. Leveraging the design-build process to integrate the team and work together to collaborate on innovative solutions was imperative. Reducing solar heat gain is critical to maintaining a cool building and leveraging the San Diego temperate climate. The glazing of windows becomes very important in this regard. High performance glazing that maximises daylight while minimising heat gain was used. This is especially apparent in the Luminous Wave wall, which serves an architectural purpose but also exists as a work of art. As an insulated glass wall, it limits glare and heat gain by the sun on the building’s southern exposure and is a public art commissioned for this project. It takes inspiration from the light and water ripples on the surface of the ocean while providing unobstructed outside views.

The Authority is installing an additional four megawatts of on-site photovoltaic (PV) solar panels on the roof of the new Terminal 1. This expansion will increase the total on-site solar capacity to nearly 9.5 megawatts. A new 2 megawatt/4 megawatt-hour battery energy storage system (BESS) is also planned to be added to the existing battery storage system, doubling the storage capacity at SAN.

We are also installing an expanded network of EV charging for the electric buses and vehicle fleet, in public parking areas, and for airline ground support equipment (GSE). The new Terminal 1 Parking Plaza will contain EV charging infrastructure for up to 10% of parking stalls, and additional EV chargers will also be installed in the existing Terminal 2 Parking Plaza. On the airside, the new charging infrastructure for electric GSE will comprise an average of five ports per gate, enabling the continued conversion of equipment to electric. The landside bus fleet that transports passengers and employees is carbon neutral and includes 33 electric buses (about half of the fleet). The other half of the bus fleet uses renewable natural gas, an alternative fuel.

What specific initiatives have been most effective at San Diego International Airport in reducing Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions?

A few years ago, the Authority began purchasing electricity from the region’s Community Choice Energy program called San Diego Community Power that provides 100% carbon-free, renewable grid-delivered electricity. Because of this, power delivered to SAN has an emissions factor of zero, which means the Authority reduced its Scope 2 to zero. Each new gate of the terminal will also provide pre-conditioned air and power to aircraft parked at the gate. This enables pilots to turn off auxiliary power units (APU) while on stand and provides renewable, carbon-free power (and reduced greenhouse gas and particulate emissions) to the parked aircraft while passengers are disembarking and boarding.

SAN also has 5.5 megawatts of on-site photovoltaic (PV) panels and consumes all electricity generated from the solar systems on-site, which results in less electrical demand that needs to be delivered from the utility.

San Diego International Airport is currently at Level 4+ Transition of Airport Carbon Accreditation, where effective collaboration is key. Can you explain how the airport is actively working with third parties (airlines, ground handlers, ATM, etc.) to achieve further CO2 reductions across the entire airport site?

The Airport Authority and airlines have agreed to partner on an “Alternative Fuel Vehicle and Vehicle Age Agreement” to convert airside vehicles and equipment to alternative fuels.

The Authority also works with ground transportation companies including Uber and Lyft to obtain operational data related to passenger trips. A Greenhouse Gas Rating & Trip Fee Rate Calculation built into permits provides the opportunity to measure and reduce carbon emissions from Transportation Network Companies (TNC) operations. The Authority is also installing three dual-port EV chargers (DCFC) for TNC and taxi usage.

The transition to Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) is seen as critical for the sustainable future of our industry. How are you facilitating the adoption of SAF, and what challenges do you encounter?

SAN receives a small amount of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) on behalf of Signature Airlines, its Fixed Base Operator (FBO). San Diego is a “Tier 1” location for the FBO and is expecting a tenfold increase of SAF uptake based on customer needs. Production of SAF isn’t at scale, and the pipeline that delivers fuel to SAN doesn’t include SAF. For those reasons, the fuel needs to be trucked into SAN (by trucks running on renewable diesel) but uptake is slow. However, in order to receive any SAF at SAN, all stakeholders in the fuel consortium needed to provide authorisation to use the fuel. In other words, the diligence and hard part of getting collective agreement to mix SAF with petroleum jet fuel has been done, so when we achieve scale and distribution capacity, the airport is ready to receive more SAF.

Looking towards the future, how do you see the role of airports evolving in the context of global efforts to fight climate change?

According to GHG Protocol, “Many companies find that 80% or more of their greenhouse gas emissions come from their value chain, which makes understanding and managing these impacts so important.” Guiding and influencing Scope 3 emissions is difficult, since the majority of greenhouse gas emissions occurring at an airport are outside of its operational control, focusing on Scope 3 supply chain reductions is critical for decarbonisation.

What are your ambitions within the Airport Carbon Accreditation programme?

The Authority is committed to pursuing decarbonisation, and the Airport Carbon Accreditation programme provides a helpful airport-specific roadmap for carbon reductions. With SAN’s elimination of Scope 2 emissions, and a plan to transition vehicles and equipment from natural gas to sustainable fuel, the Authority is poised to achieve net zero in Scope 1 and 2 by 2050 and plans to continue evolving within Airport Carbon Accreditation.

Finally, what advice would you give to other airports striving to improve their sustainability performance and contribute to the aviation industry’s overall environmental goals?

Start collecting data before needing it for a particular milestone. For instance, it takes time and effort to develop the data pipeline within an organisation. When requesting data from third parties including business partners, that effort can take even longer. A detailed accounting of the data source, including points of contact and the methodology behind computing a particular metric, should be included in data trackers for future reference.