Clean Technology

Sustainability Efforts Take Off at SFO: An Interview with Erin Cooke


Considering that San Francisco may be the greenest city in the United States, it’s no surprise to find that its hometown airport is at the forefront of sustainability in the aviation industry. Last year, the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) set a goal to become the first and only airport worldwide to reach net-zero energy, net-zero waste, and carbon neutrality by 2021. It may also be the only campus of its size (roughly 5,000 acres, including 14.5 million square feet) to set a moonshot like this.

“Zero is our airport’s commitment to minimize our operational impact and create beneficial outcomes for our shared environment, upon which we all rely,” says Erin Cooke, SFO’s sustainability director.

Addressing Diverse Stakeholders

About 43,000 people work at the airport, and it produces more than $8 billion in annual economic activity. SFO’s sheer size and the need to ensure the airport’s business continuity has helped gain critical buy-in from leadership and partners to mobilize adaptation, resilience, and sustainability projects. “The need to safeguard our airport, its workforce, and its passenger base, is—and should be—a big driver of climate-beneficial investment,” she says.

SFO is in the midst of a $7.4 billion capital program to meet many of these strategic plan goals. In order to best deploy that money, the airport is piloting the use of a triple–bottom-line cost-benefit calculator, which quantifies the social, economic, and environmental—or people-, profit-, and planet-based—outcome of each and every facility investment decision.

Though SFO hasn’t yet turned to green bonds to raise money, the organization has recently been fielding more impact-related queries from investors. “As the airport is accessing municipal bonds, we’re seeing a lot more questions from the investor community about the sustainability work on our campus,” Cooke says. “The investor community recognizes that these impacts have a triple bottom line, and they’re looking to make investments that can scale and offer a global gain.”

Cooke also sees a shift from checklist-based design. “Organizations in our sector are struggling with this checklist-based approach to capital investment, where there isn’t as much support for just doing something to get a plaque,” she says. “Instead, companies want to see outcomes in terms of direct financial or utility cost savings and real health and well-being gains.”

Innovation at SFO and Beyond

Making SFO greener has also required some creative problem-solving—and precipitated some unintended benefits. Designing terminals with larger windows to bring in more natural daylight, for example, reduced lighting consumption but drove up HVAC costs related to new heat gain. This new expense pushed further innovation, resulting in the installation of windows that darken throughout the day, allowing the perfect amount of daylight in while keeping the heat out. In addition to lower bills, this change brought about added the benefit of creating a more comfortable working environment for airline employees stationed in front of those windows. “Our total benefit calculator evaluated the quality of life and comfort benefits for that gate agent,” Cooke says. “Ultimately, if they were uncomfortable at their post, they may have left the airport, requiring recruitment, training, and additional investment in onboarding a new employee.”

In the past three years as it has moved toward net-zero energy, SFO has cut water use by 52% and energy use by 25%, suggesting that zero may be within reach. The airport has long harnessed new technology to prioritize Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and it was the first in the industry to accomplish LEED Gold certification in a terminal. The success of this initiative and others prompts the question: are airports ready for climate merit-based pay when it comes to sustainability? According to Cooke, the answer is yes—although it will likely be a gradual transition. “Climate merit-based pay may be under consideration at airports,” she says. “There are many airports that are starting to track their emissions, utility use, and other environmental metrics more robustly and aggressively and so have the data at their fingertips to make decisions about whether they want performance-based incentives—pay or otherwise—based upon a performance indicator like energy savings or emissions reductions from a given baseline.”

SFO’s drive to be greener is part of a wider effort throughout San Francisco to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. Cooke says she appreciates those projects and is always looking for lessons from them that she can bring back to the airport. In particular, she’s been studying neighborhood-scale microgrids, proposed for San Francisco’s South of Market area, and an initiative to identify native, drought-tolerant plants ideal for the city. “Our passengers would be happily surprised to explore the drought-tolerant plants and landscaped areas throughout our campus, if time permitted. We know our employees certainly do!” Cooke says. “The city’s leadership to identify and geo-locate these plant types for all to learn from, explore, and ideally replicate, helps SFO connect plant-driven biodiversity and carbon sequestration benefits to our campus.”

While Cooke and SFO are focused on moving the airport toward its ambitious goals, the lessons learned from the process will likely help other airports, organizations, campuses, and municipalities do the same. The aviation industry today has more than just the ability to move people from one corner of the earth to another—it has the power to spread and scale high-impact sustainability solutions across the globe.

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