Iowa airports going green, saving on energy costs

FAA supports initiatives with grants, programs

Work continues on the geothermal heating and cooling system behind the #x201c;In Transit#x201d; sculpture by Dennis Patt
Work continues on the geothermal heating and cooling system behind the “In Transit” sculpture by Dennis Patton at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

When the next phase of a $50 million remodeling of the passenger terminal at the Eastern Iowa Airport is completed, 738 solar panels mounted on the roof will reduce energy costs along with a geothermal heating and cooling system.

As with many airports nationwide, the Cedar Rapids airport has been going green for many years, adopting environmentally friendly practices to reduce energy costs and improve the environment.

Airport Director Marty Lenss said the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the airport a $579,870 grant, which will pay 90 percent of the cost of the $644,300 solar energy project. The airport will pay the remaining 10 percent.

“The Central Region of the Federal Aviation Administration supported our project,” Lenss said. “The return on investment for the airport will be just under three years.

“It will be a 240 kilowatt system providing power that will be consumed on site. It will help us absorb electric rate increases in future years and offset ongoing electricity costs when it is fully operational in April 2019.”

Solar panels are one of the more visible examples of environmentally friendly initiatives being embraced by airports and supported with federal and state grants. Another is the conversion of older incandescent lighting to energy-efficient LED lighting.

In February 2011, the airport completed an extensive interior and exterior lighting upgrade.

The $208,500 project, which is reducing energy use by as much as 80 percent, involved replacing metal halide lights installed in 1985 on the outside of the terminal with LED lighting. Older T12 fluorescent lights inside the terminal were replaced with more energy-efficient T8 lighting.


The airport received a grant of $84,615 from the Iowa Office of Energy Independence and matched it with $123,885 of local funding to cover the cost of the project.

Visitors to the airport also may have noticed an interior terminal improvement that is not related to energy LED lighting.

The installation of skylights during the recently completed second phase of the terminal remodeling project also has reduced energy costs and improved visibility.

“We are able to harvest all that natural light and put our interior artificial lights on photocells so that we only have minimal lights on during the day,” Lenss said.

Drilling rigs, melting snow

As electric vehicles began appearing on the nation’s highways, airports have taken notice.

The Quad Cities International Airport installed two Level II charging stations in its short-term parking lot in 2012. The units each can charge two vehicles at a time in four to six hours.

The Eastern Iowa Airport recently installed two of the same kind of charging stations in its short-term parking lot and two additional charging stations in its long-term parking lot.

While many of the airport’s green initiatives are evident above ground, another is taking shape below.

“Visitors to the airport will see drill rigs being used to construct the geothermal field,” Lenss said.


The heating and cooling system will handle the existing passenger terminal as well as a 54,000-square-foot addition.

The airport previously installed geothermal heating and cooling for its $5 million public safety building that opened in September 2009. It also installed geothermal heating when it replaced two sets of concrete steps from the parking lot to the terminal drive.

The use of salt and other ice-melting chemicals over the years had caused the concrete steps to deteriorate.

Ice and snow also are an annual challenge with taxiways and runways at many airports. But an experiment at the Des Moines International Airport may provide an environmentally friendly solution.

Engineers at Iowa State University have installed two test slabs of electrically conductive concrete. So far, the 15-by-13.5-foot test slabs have effectively cleared ice and snow.

Halil Ceylan, an ISU professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, said the slabs marked by diagonally painted red stripes have proved that the technology works.

“Our goal is to keep airports open, safe and accessible,” Ceylan said. “We don’t want any slips or falls, or any aircraft skidding off runways. Our technologies can contribute to providing a safe environment and fewer delays.”

Ceylan and the other researchers have calculated the operating cost of using the electrically conductive concrete for seven hours at about 19 cents per square meter.

Seven hours “is way more than enough to melt an inch of ice or snow,” Ceylan said.


While admitting that the cost of installation is higher than traditional concrete, Ceylan noted that the heated pavement technology also saves on the cost of plows, de-icing chemicals and wastewater treatment of chemical runoff.

Since 2009, the Eastern Iowa Airport has been working with the city of Cedar Rapids and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources on water quality improvements, including the handling of aircraft and pavement de-icing fluids. In 2012, the airport constructed an outfall de-icing basin to improve stormwater quality and has contracted with an environmental engineering company for monitoring.

Burning miscanthus

Lenss said the airport has begun planting natural waterways on its 2,000 acres of farmland with a hybrid mix of native grass and pollinators. Farmers who lease the land from the airport to grow corn or soybeans also have planted 300 acres with a cover crop.

“We have found, through our partnership with ISU, that those prairie grasses really help improve water quality in terms of runoff and soil erosion,” he said. “With our parking lot expansion that we just completed, we modified our stormwater detention basins and they will be planted with pollinators this summer.”

The airport also began a partnership with the University of Iowa in 2015 to allow the planting of miscanthus, a deep rooted perennial grass, on 65 acres of low performing farmland. The grass eventually will be harvested and burned as fuel by the UI power plant.

Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, UI environmental compliance specialist, said burning miscanthus as a power plant fuel will help the university meet a long-term goal.

“We have a goal to have 40 percent of our energy come from renewable sources by 2020,” Anderson said. “This particular crop takes three years to establish.”

One of the features of the remodeled passenger terminal will be a “living wall” next to the escalator and stairs leading from the security checkpoint on the first floor to the upper concourse.


“We will have planters on that stone wall,” Lenss said. “The plants will help with natural air quality in the terminal, providing a better overall environment for our guests, airline employees and airport employees.”

Lenss said environmental stewardship is incorporated as a core initiative in the airport’s strategic plan that was developed in 2016.

“We look at it in terms of everything we do,” he said. “We know that many companies are looking at environmental stewardship when they are making purchasing decisions.

“We want to be out ahead of that and lead in that arena.”

The FAA, which regulates all aspects of civilian aviation, has been promoting sustainable planning by airports since 2010. A pilot program with 10 airports had a goal of reducing environmental impacts, achieving environmental benefits and improving relationships with local communities.

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