Geothermal Will Make Airport’s Snow Job Easy

The other geothermal is going in at an airport in a snowy part of New York state, in a novel way: It will be used to keep snow off the pavement where aircraft are parked.

We say the “other” geothermal because typically we write about utility-scale geothermal projects in which the heat energy from geothermal reservoirs is converted into electricity. In this project – at the Greater Binghamton Airport, there’s no power plant. Instead, the relative warmth of the earth underground during the winter is grabbed and brought to the service using water-source heat pumps.

airport geothermal snow removal

image via Greater Binghamton Airport

“Binghamton is the first airport in the country to use a geothermal system to heat an aircraft parking ramp,” the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority said in a release. “The $1.25 million dollar project is expected to result in the avoidance of 103 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.”

NYSERDA and the Federal Aviation Administration are financing the project, which “will cover installation of a geothermal well field, construction of a mechanical building, installation of mechanical equipment and connection piping, connections to a chilled water cooling system and replacement of two existing terminal building boilers.”

The idea to keep the aircraft parking ramp clear of snow using radiant heating came in a proposal from the airport and Binghamton University that was entered in a National FAA Design Competition for Universities back in 2009 – and which won first prize. That proposal [PDF] noted that “methods of deicing and snow removal of paved surfaces are a significant expense for cold climate airports,” not only because it is time-consuming and requires heavy equipment, but because “the use of sand can potentially cause damage to aircraft engines and deicing chemicals, i.e. potassium acetate, are thought to have adverse environmental effects.”

In the actual implementation, the project is being expanded a bit beyond what the students envisioned: once again taking advantage of the insulating properties of the earth, during hot summer months the system will be used to cool the terminal building.

In case you’re wondering, yes, the students did touch on the possibility of keeping runways snow-free through such a system, but said “the required scale for energy and other associated costs” for such a system would be “impractical and generally unrealistic.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.