Airports go for green with eco-friendly efforts

A fleet of miniature wind turbines at Boston Logan International Airport have perhaps the best view of the city, overlooking the downtown skyline across the expansive harbor as commercial jets descend overhead.

Each 6-foot-tall turbine, placed at the edge of the rooftop of the airport's headquarters, is affixed at a unique angle to capture the winds that gust through Boston Harbor and climb the building's walls.

The 20 turbines, installed in July, are expected to generate about 100,000 kilowatt-hours annually, equal to 3% of the building's energy needs.

"There's a clean flow of air coming off the harbor toward the building," says Steven Gitlin, a marketing executive at AeroVironment, a California company that worked on the $140,000 project. "The turbines are uniquely created for the urban environment. And it makes a lot of sense for airports that want to reduce their carbon footprint."

Logan's turbines are one of the most visible examples of the environmentally friendly initiatives being embraced by major U.S. airports. From low-flush toilets and hybrid taxis to solar panels and recycled coffee grounds, some of the largest airports are aggressively implementing green measures to save on energy costs and to generate favorable impressions among travelers.

Airports have always had to comply with certain environmental regulations arising out of their operations, as local governments require impact studies on new construction projects and soundproofing nearby homes. Landings and takeoffs, as well as the diesel shuttles that circle the terminal roads, leave thousands of tons of toxic emissions in a compact area of the city. And for years, many airports have been slow to adopt measures that go beyond the minimum requirements, says Steve Howards of consulting firm Clean Airport Partnership.

U.S. airlines emitted about 418 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in 2007, according to the Air Transport Association, the airline industry trade group.

"Airports have been spending hundreds of millions in terminal facilities that are aesthetically pleasing but aren't designed to conserve energy," he says. "Because of the precarious situation in airlines, airports require quick return on investment. Sometimes the return on investment on these (environmental) projects is not quick enough for the airport."

But like many other industries, airports are embracing the green zeitgeist, triggered partly by better social awareness and improving technology, and made more urgent by rising fuel prices. "If you're watching oil prices, it gives you more incentive for somebody like us to look at pilot programs for energy savings," says Sam Sleiman, Boston Logan's director of capital programs and environmental affairs. "The perception is that airports are pollutants, and we wanted to change the perception."

Some efforts aren't new

Some green efforts have been around for years. On-site compressed natural gas fueling stations, glass walls for more natural light, electrical connections at aircraft gates, lower-wattage bulbs, recycled building materials and water-conserving vegetation are standard environmental practices at many airports.

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