As we wait for electric planes and green aviation fuels to arrive, airports across the United States are beginning to transition to electric buses to transport passengers from one terminal to another and from car parks to terminals and vice versa. The amount of carbon emissions from diesel buses at airports is only a small fraction of aviation’s total carbon footprint – only around 1.7% – but the switch to electric buses raises more awareness of the emissions created by airport operations. Electric baggage handling equipment, food trucks and tow trucks will be the next to experience the change.
According Canary Islands Media, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the largest transportation agency in the United States, awarded more than $27 million this year to help a dozen airports purchase zero-emission buses, as well as charging stations and equipment used to service aircraft at gates. That’s on top of the more than $300 million in grants it disbursed last year to electrify airport equipment.
“Airport electrification is an important part of achieving net zero emissions and addressing our climate crisis,” said Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Canary Islands Media. “This funding brings us closer to that goal while helping to get passengers and their luggage where they need to go.”
Electric planes and cleaner fuels are a thing of the future, but electrifying mass transit vehicles is something the aviation industry can do immediately to reduce greenhouse gases. “Our biggest effort to reduce emissions is electrifying our entire shuttle fleet,” says Haley Gentry, CEO of Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina.
It is the sixth busiest airport in the world by passenger traffic and it plans to retire its fleet of nearly 60 diesel shuttles and replace them with 50 electric models by the end of this decade. With the help of nearly $10 million in FAA grants, 10 battery-electric buses have been purchased, orders for 5 more have been placed and 11 charging stations have been installed, Gentry said.
The electric fleet includes models from the American manufacturer Proterrawho manufactured the vehicles in Greenville, South Carolina, and Canada New circular, which produced its buses at a factory in Anniston, Alabama. “We seek to determine what works best for us through trial and error,” says Gentry. Buses that carry passengers from car parks to airport terminals need to be able to lower their floor or entry doors more than typical transit buses so people can easily get on and off their luggage. Some of the models seem better suited for use on city streets, Gentry says.
At around $750,000 each, the new electric buses cost twice as much as the diesel versions. But airport officials say they expect to save money in the long run due to lower operating and maintenance costs of battery-powered models. Gentry says electric buses also offer a much quieter ride and are smoother in stop-and-go conditions. “Not forgetting, of course, that there is no combustion of diesel fuel,” she adds.
Electric Buses at Sacramento Airport
Sacramento International Airport in California has 10 electric buses and 8 more on the way. Its current fleet of 35 buses runs on compressed natural gas, a fuel that produces fewer smog-related tailpipe emissions than diesel, but is still primarily composed of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Although it burns cleaner than diesel, it is also subject to wild swings in the price of natural gas itself. Electricity rates tend to be much more stable. The airport received $4.6 million in FAA grants last year to begin making the switch.
The midsize airport chose Proterra to manufacture its electric buses, a decision driven largely by the constraints of the airport’s maintenance facility, said Bree Taylor, airport planner for Sacramento County.
Some electric bus manufacturers, including New Flyer and BYD, place batteries on the roofs of vehicles, but the airport’s maintenance facility is not set up for mechanics to repair bus parts or retool systems. battery at heights of nine feet above the ground. “We need a floor-mounted battery,” says Taylor. The airport also didn’t want to bet on fledgling vehicle manufacturers with untested buses. Planners wanted to order models that were already in service elsewhere.
Proterra buses primarily charge at a parking lot near the airport’s 7.9 megawatt solar park. During the day, drivers can plug in the vehicles between runs to recharge the batteries with solar electricity – a practice known as “opportunity charging.” However, the buses charge most of their battery when they are parked for the night.
Those planners also anticipate an increase in electricity demand at the airport, Taylor says. Car rental companies such as Hertz are adding thousands of electric passenger cars and trucks to their fleets nationwide, while airport taxi operators are also swapping combustion engines for batteries. Private companies that operate baggage handlers, airport tugs and other ground equipment also need to plug in more. If battery-powered commuter planes start taking off from Sacramento, they will also have to draw significant amounts of electricity from the airport grid.
“Where we are right now, it’s just realizing that there’s this huge [electricity] demand coming our way, and we have a limited supply,” says Taylor. “Going forward, our very next steps will be to research the different demands of these different sectors and then work with our utility” – Sacramento Municipal Utility District – to “increase that supply.” Fortunately, SMUD is one of the most progressive and proactive municipal utilities in the country and will be more than ready for the challenge.
Electric buses are part of US airports’ plan to reduce carbon emissions from their ground operations. There has been a strong push from the federal government to help them acquire these clean transportation devices as part of the Biden administration’s plan to advance the electric transportation revolution.
We can only hope that new battery technologies will soon bring cheaper batteries to market so that the price of these vehicles comes down, making them more affordable for municipalities and airports. Earth can’t wait much longer for clean transportation options to become the norm.
Image courtesy of Charlotte Douglas Airport.
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