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May 10, 2024
Thought leadership

The sky’s the limit: Airport electrification can supercharge sustainability

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While flights today are over 80% more fuel efficient than they were in the 1950s, the aviation sector still produces almost one billion tonnes of CO2 per year. As the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent, the sector is facing pressure to further reduce its environmental footprint.

This will be especially crucial in the coming decades as air travel demands continue to soar, with global passenger numbers expected to double by 2042. The aviation industry is making a lot of changes — and in this regard, electrification offers a promising pathway to sustainability: not just of flights themselves, but of the entire ecosystem.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Airport Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) and Infrastructure Pilot Program provides grants to airports to support electrification projects, such as the installation of solar panels and charging stations. Last year, the FAA announced that this fund had awarded $92 million to 21 airports across the US.

It is part of a wider strategy to fulfill the Aviation Climate Action Plan, a “whole-of-government approach to put the sector on a path toward achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.” Here is how the industry has responded to this ambitious call-to-action.

What’s going electric in aviation

Aircraft — Once seen as a distant science-fiction dream, there are now an estimated 100 electric plane programs in development around the world, and shorter-range electric aircraft could even become commercially available as soon as next year.

In addition to being zero-emission — and thus reducing the impact of global warming and improving air quality for nearby communities — electric planes produce less noise pollution, opening up the possibility of expanding air travel to areas where it is currently restricted due to noise regulations. Certain aircraft can even take-off and land vertically, further broadening accessibility beyond traditional airports.

However, as in any heavily regulated industry, the pace of adoption will likely lag well behind technological advancements. Just one electric aircraft has been certified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and only 10 of the 19,000 privately owned planes in the UK are electric.

Airport ground support equipment (GSE) — Even before regulation catches up, there is a lot that the aviation industry can do to stay ahead of the sustainability curve: beginning with airports. Airport ground support vehicles, traditionally fossil-fuel-powered, are ideal for electrification since they have predictable routes that tend to cover short distances — such as passenger and cargo transport buses.

Several airports, including St. Louis Lambert International Airport in Missouri, have already begun transitioning their interterminal passenger transport fleets to EVs using FAA grant money.

Shuttles and transit — Airport shuttle buses require greater electricity and infrastructure demands since they transport passengers to and from the city center. This means installing charging stations not only at airport terminals, but also at pick-up/drop-up sites in cities, as was carried out by a Toronto airport that recently electrified its city shuttle bus route.

By harnessing vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, heavy-duty electric vehicles such as buses can even serve as back-up generators when they’re not in use, preventing power outages. This is particularly critical given how common — and costly — airport blackouts are. 85% of airport executives say they’ve had at least one power outage in the past year, which in some cases cost upwards of $100 million and left tens of thousands of passengers stranded.

Charging hubs — As the US slowly phases out gas-powered cars, airports will need to prioritize the installation of charging infrastructure not only for internal vehicles, but also for external commercial fleets (such as taxis and rental cars) and personal EVs. This will require the deployment of various types and speeds of chargers, ensuring scalability to meet future demand, as well as adaptability to future technological advancements.

If this crucial step is executed well, airports can establish themselves as pivotal charging hubs for land EVs while simultaneously gearing up for the not-so-distant future when electric aircrafts take to our skies in great numbers.

Navigating electrification challenges

As the transition from traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to EVs gains momentum, airport electricity demand is projected to increase 5x by 2050, with some airports expecting demand to triple within the next five years alone.

Working with utilities closely will be essential for airports to evaluate their current electrical infrastructure and work on getting more power to their sites.

While the upfront costs associated with this may cause some concern, the truth is that electrification is far more cost effective in the long-run. Electrification not only cuts emissions, it also massively reduces overall energy demand. For airports that opt for electricity sourced from on-site renewables, cost-savings will be even more pronounced.

Furthermore, airports are typically built in densely populated urban areas where free land is scarce. Finding adequate spaces to build electrification infrastructure can be challenging due to the need to prioritize runway operations, parking and terminal facilities. Additionally, any new infrastructure in an airport needs to adhere to strict security standards, and extra measures may need to be taken to ensure that electrical installations do not interfere with airport facilities.

To overcome this, airports should assess their current infrastructure layout to identify inefficiently used spaces that can be repurposed for electrification projects. For example, terminal rooftops or parking lots can be redesigned to house electrification and charging infrastructure. These spaces can even be leveraged to build microgrids made up of solar farms, storage batteries, and other distributed energy resources (DERs) — further boosting sustainability by sourcing electricity from renewables.

How software can support airport electrification

Successful airport electrification will ultimately require extremely efficient management of energy resources. Smart charge management software can enhance efficiency at airports by optimizing charging of on-site vehicles during off-peak hours when electricity costs are lowest, thus minimizing operational expenses. These systems can also reduce risk of power outages by automatically managing peak loads.

The challenge of hardware-software interoperability is still a major hurdle in the EV transition — and this will be no less the case for airports as they look to go fully electric. But with the right software, airports won’t have to choose between relying on a single provider, which comes with an increased risk of power outages, and potentially facing compatibility issues by opting for several different providers.

Advanced software will facilitate data collection on EV charging activities across the entire airport, empowering decision-makers with insights into demand patterns and operational needs, thus enabling optimization strategies to cut costs, prevent power outages, and even open up additional revenue streams.

The electrification of airports will be vital to reducing the carbon footprint of a heavily-polluting sector, and should thus form a core part of a nations’ efforts to adhere to the Paris Agreement, which states that the rise in global temperatures should be limited to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In establishing crucial charging infrastructure, airports will not only serve their own electrification needs, but also those of other industries as well as the public. In this sense, airport electrification has the potential to spark a ripple effect, promoting wider EV adoption across diverse sectors.

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