Destination net zero: Opportunities for sustainable airport decarbonisation

10th November 2021

The UK’s regional airports have been through a challenging time. Now, as passenger numbers begin to recuperate, these ambitious airports are eager to return to their pre-Covid growth plans.

They have a vital role to play not just in getting people and cargo moving again, but also in working with local councils to create vibrant commercial hubs that attract businesses and visitors to their regions.

But to have any chance of getting expansion plans off the ground, airports will need to demonstrate a genuine commitment to achieving net zero, alongside practical actions to get there. All airports must play their part in meeting the government’s 2050 deadline for net zero, and many are now putting carbon-reduction strategies at the top of their agenda.

Assessing the carbon-reduction challenge

Understanding how to achieve the ultimate goal of net zero is the first stumbling block for most airports. Accessing the right expertise to develop carbon-reduction roadmaps and implement effective decarbonisation measures has become a priority for airports as they begin planning for the future. Every airport is unique and requires a bespoke set of actions to eliminate carbon emissions effectively.

Airport terminals pose particular challenges for effective energy management and hence carbon reduction. Airports are generally open 24 hours a day and at different times can accommodate thousands of people or be virtually empty. They incorporate large, open spaces, often with large windows, which require energy-intensive heating and cooling to maintain a comfortable environment. In many airports, heating and cooling systems in different parts of the building are often working in conflict.

Energy efficiencies and renewable sourcing  

The first step in any decarbonisation programme is to understand when and where energy is being consumed, and to identify areas for efficiencies. Once energy efficiencies have been maximised, the next step is to look at the sources of energy. Switching to renewable electricity contracts is one way to eliminate carbon emissions from energy supplies. For many airports, which have large areas of land and vast rooftops, a better option is to install on-site renewable generation capacity, such as solar panels, which can directly supply the premises with carbon-free electricity.

EQUANS has the expertise in large-scale decarbonisation projects to support airports in their efforts to meet their own and government sustainability targets. Our breadth of expertise covers the entire decarbonisation remit, from initial assessments, planning and proposals through to project implementation, financing and ongoing monitoring.

Uncovering the possibilities

Our approach is initially to assess the entire site, landside and airside, to understand its capacity, operational practices, building layout, energy-consuming assets, tenant requirements and much more. From this assessment, we set out the ‘art of the possible’ in terms of sustainability – including efficiency measures, operational changes and capital investments.

Immediate improvements to increase energy efficiency might include installing LED lighting, automating building management systems, aligning HVAC controls with times of peak occupancy, and ensuring unoccupied parts of the building are not unnecessarily heated, cooled or illuminated.

Providing electric vehicle charge points in long stay and short stay airport car parks could be a possibility to encourage the growing number of EV drivers and support their arrival and stay needs. 

Installing renewable energy technology may be another recommendation, often combined with on-site battery storage to provide essential resilience. By combining solar PV panels with battery storage capacity, airports can be assured of uninterrupted power supplies (UPS), whatever the weather.

Addressing the capital conundrum

Once we have identified high-level opportunities and savings, our specialists develop investment-grade proposals for specific carbon-reduction projects. A major obstacle to decarbonisation for airports is the availability of capital funds, since many airports had to dip into their capital expenditure resources to stay afloat during the pandemic.

EQUANS offers a range of financing options to overcome these difficulties, including providing ‘decarbonisation as a service’, where we retain ownership of the assets while delivering energy, cost and carbon savings to the airport. Other financing options may involve EQUANS providing the initial capital funding, with the airport repaying the loan out of savings achieved over time.

Tackling Scope 3 emissions 

To achieve full decarbonisation, airports will also need to work with their tenants, who are responsible for Scope 3 emissions. A range of options is available, including supplying airport-generated renewable electricity direct to tenants, and using smart building systems to ensure energy-consuming assets in tenant premises operate in harmony with communal spaces. For larger tenants with premises on the airfield, EQUANS can draw up individual plans that support the overall decarbonisation of the airport.

Change behaviours for long-term benefits

It is possible for airports to achieve carbon neutrality through offsetting via accredited schemes. However, our primary focus at EQUANS is to change behaviours and operational practices so that carbon reductions can be sustained for the long term. This approach delivers real and sustained energy and carbon reductions, at the same time as helping airports become more effective and efficient businesses.

Example: Route to net zero

Airport A: Carbon emissions: 10,000 tCO2e (scope 1 & 2)

Measures identified to achieve net zero:
- Smart LED lighting installation
- BMS control upgrade
- HVAC upgraded with EC fans & VSDs
- Solar PV rooftop installation
- Low-carbon heating & hot water system
- Chiller efficiency improvements

Carbon savings delivered by:
- Energy efficiencies: 2,500 tCO2e
- Green power: 3,000 tCO2e
- Green thermal: 4,500 tCO2e


To find out more about the decarbonisation services and support provided by EQUANS, please contact netzero.uk@engie.com and we'll be happy to arrange an initial discussion.