Why More Airports Should Go Electric for Their Ground Crew Fleets

 In Green Fleet

There are many promising applications for electric vehicles in airports and airfields. Vehicles powered by conventional fuels perform various roles that are necessary for airport operations, and they are characterized by being driven often while only covering a relatively small area (from our experience, most airport fleet vehicles travel less than 10,000 miles per year). Therefore, if these vehicles were electric, range anxiety is practically eliminated since the vehicles would never be far from their charging stations. Furthermore, their intermittent operation allows many potential charging periods, while their frequent stops represent an opportunity to optimize energy consumption with regenerative braking.

Electric vehicles can also help reduce the environmental footprint of airports. Consider that airports account for up to 10% of emissions in some urban areas, and conventional fuel vehicles are the main source, exceeding even the emissions of aircraft.

The Role of Vehicles in Airports

There are many important tasks to complete every time airplanes land. Crew members and passengers are constantly boarding and de-boarding aircraft, while cargo is loaded or unloaded. Solid and liquid waste must be removed from incoming aircraft, while they are provided with a new supply of food, beverage, hygiene products, and other consumables. Of course, the airplane itself must also be refueled and inspected and must be connected to an external power supply for its electrical systems while at the terminal. All these tasks can only be performed quickly and effectively with the help of vehicles.

Most Common Vehicles Used in Airports:

  • Refuelers carry a fuel tank or connect to a central pipeline that runs through the airport, and use a pump to refuel aircraft
  • Tugs and tractors are used for various functions that include hauling equipment and baggage carts. Pushback tugs help move airplanes away from the gates once they are ready to leave
  • Belt loaders are vehicles equipped with an inclinable conveyor belt to simplify baggage loading
  • Ground power units are vehicles that carry an electric generator to power aircraft systems such as lighting and air conditioning between flights
  • Buses are required to transport passengers in larger airports or when aircraft is parked far from the corresponding gate
  • Some types of passenger loading stairs are vehicles that can move from airplane to airplane as needed
  • Container loaders are used to load pallets, containers, or other pieces of cargo much heavier than normal luggage
  • Air Start Units (ASU) are used to start the engines when the auxiliary power unit of an airplane is not operational
  • There are many special purpose vehicles such as potable water trucks, lavatory service vehicles and catering vehicles
  • Rescue and firefighting vehicles are required in some emergency situations
  • Passenger vehicles used for various tasks that require getting around airport grounds quickly

It is important to note that each type of airport vehicle has a unique operating pattern. In general, the duty cycle can be described based on the percentage of time a vehicle is in operation and the duration of each operating cycle. Analyzing the usage patterns of different vehicle types is very important when considering an upgrade to an electric fleet, given than duty cycles define the technical specifications of batteries and charging stations. For example, fast charging may be necessary for vehicles with short idle periods. Learn how your fleet can use duty cycle data to effectively plan an EV fleet.

Reducing the Financial and Environmental Impact of Airport Vehicle Fleets

As previously stated, airports can account for up to 10% of pollutant emissions in some urban areas, and 25% of airports in the US are located in areas that don’t comply with the air quality standards outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency. Conventional vehicles also represent a significant monthly expense for airports, which is unpredictable due to the volatility of the fossil fuel market.

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Electric vehicles are emerging as a promising alternative for airport operations. They can be charged with electricity from a solar photovoltaic array, taking advantage of the large rooftop area of airports; or with electricity from the power grid during low-demand hours, when the lowest rates are applied. They also offer emissions-free operation and consume electricity with an efficiency of approximately 80%, while fuel-powered vehicles are typically limited to an efficiency below 20%.

Electric vehicle charging infrastructure in airports can also help drive the adoption of electric vehicles for other businesses. For example, companies that transport passengers or cargo between airports and surrounding locations can start deploying electric vehicles once the airport is equipped with changing infrastructure. These vehicles often remain idle at the airport for extended periods.

Electric Vehicle Suitability Assessment for Airport Fleets

The cost of upgrading the entire fleet of an airport to electric vehicles can be very high, and proceeding without a plan can lead to a poor return on investment. In addition, since each vehicle has a different usage pattern, the return on investment is not the same for all of them. A detailed assessment of the existing fleet is necessary to identify the most promising areas of opportunity for electric vehicles, but the best results are typically achieved under the following conditions:

  • Fuel-based vehicles subject to intermittent operation suffer from fast deterioration and increased maintenance expenses
  • Electric vehicles are better suited for this type of operation since there are less mechanical components subject to friction
  • Frequent braking has a negative effect on fuel economy when conventional vehicles are used, while electric vehicles can use regenerative braking to recover a portion of their charge each time they stop
  • Buses and other vehicles that interact with passengers also represent a promising opportunity for electric vehicles, reducing human exposure to emissions
  • Vehicles that return many times per day to a common hub can be upgraded to electric vehicles, and their hub becomes an excellent location for charging infrastructure

An electric vehicle suitability assessment can help fleets plan for the adoption of electric vehicles by pinpointing duty cycle improvements and forecasting total lifetime savings, ROI, and emission reduction.

Conclusions

Airports are some of the most environmentally conscious organizations, with many having detailed sustainability plans with goals laid out for more than a decade into the future. As these airports have extensive vehicle fleets to meet the demands of the varied tasks that take place, there is a large benefit to running an electric vehicle suitability assessment. The assessment would allow airports to gain a better understanding of the how their fleet is being used, where improvements can be made, and how their vehicles impact sustainability goals. In addition, airport fleet vehicles are used often but travel relatively short distances in a day, which means many vehicles running on diesel or gas could be replaced by electric vehicles. With many viable electric options on the market, there has never been a better time to start greening your fleet.

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