While we wait for electric airplanes and green aviation fuels to arrive, airports all across the United States are beginning to switch to electric buses to shuttle passengers from terminal to terminal and from parking lots to terminals and back. The amount of carbon emissions from diesel-powered buses at airports is a small part of the total carbon footprint of aviation — only about 1.7% — but the move to electric buses is increasing awareness of the emissions created by airport operations. Electric baggage-handling equipment, food service trucks, and tow vehicles will be next to experience the changeover.
According to Canary Media, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the largest U.S. transportation agency, has awarded more than $27 million this year to help a dozen airports purchase zero-emission buses, along with charging stations and equipment used to service planes at gates. That’s on top of the more than $300 million in grants it disbursed last year to electrify airport equipment.
“Electrifying airports is an important part of reaching net-zero emissions and addressing our climate crisis,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tells Canary Media. “This funding moves us closer to this goal while helping get passengers and their luggage where they need to go.”
Electric airplanes and cleaner fuels are in the future, but electrifying transit vehicles is something the aviation industry can do immediately to reduce greenhouse gases. “Our largest effort to reduce emissions is to electrify our entire shuttle bus fleet,” says Haley Gentry, CEO of Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina.
It is the world’s sixth-busiest airport for passenger traffic and it is planning to retire its fleet of nearly 60 diesel shuttle buses 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 says.
The electric fleet includes models from both U.S. manufacturer Proterra, which made the vehicles in Greenville, South Carolina, and Canada’s New Flyer, which produced its buses at a facility in Anniston, Alabama. “We’re figuring out what is a good fit for us through some trial and error,” Gentry says. Buses that shuttle passengers from parking lots to airport terminals need to be able to lower their floor or entrance doors more than typical transit buses do so people can easily haul their luggage on and off. Some of the models seem better suited for use on city streets, Gentry says.
At around $750,000 each, new electric buses cost twice as much as diesel versions. But airport officials say they expect to save money in the long term due to the lower costs of operating and maintaining the battery powered models. Gentry says the electric buses also offer a much quieter ride and are smoother in stop-and-go conditions. “Not to mention, of course, there’s zero diesel fuel being burned,” 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. While cleaner burning than diesel, it is also subject to wild swings in the price of the natural gas itself. Electricity rates tend to be far more stable. The airport received $4.6 million in FAA grants last year to start making the switch.
The midsized airport chose Proterra to make its electric buses, a decision driven largely by the constraints of the airport’s maintenance facility, said Bree Taylor, an 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 isn’t set up for mechanics to fix bus parts or retool battery systems at heights of nine feet above the ground. “We need a floor mounted battery,” Taylor says. The airport also didn’t want to bet on any fledgling vehicle makers with untested buses. Planners wanted to order models that were already in operation elsewhere.
The Proterra buses primarily recharge at a bus lot located near the airport’s 7.9-megawatt solar farm. During the day, drivers can plug in the vehicles between runs to top off batteries with solar electricity — a practice known as “opportunity charging.” The buses do most of their battery charging while parked for the night, however.
Those planners are also anticipating a surge in electricity demand at the airport, Taylor says. Rental car agencies such as Hertz are adding thousands of electric passenger cars and trucks to their fleets nationwide while airport taxi operators are also trading combustion engines for batteries. Private companies that operate baggage handlers, airport tugs, and other ground equipment are also needing to plug in more. If battery-powered commuter aircraft start flying out of Sacramento, they will need to draw significant amounts of electricity from the airport’s grid as well.
“Where we’re at right now is just realizing there’s this huge [electricity] demand coming our way, and we have a finite supply,” Taylor says. “Moving forward, our very next steps are going to be to research the different demands from these different sectors, 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 up to the challenge.
Electric buses are part of the plan by airports in America to reduce carbon emissions from their ground operations. The federal government has stepped up in a big way to help them acquire these clean transportation devices as part of the Biden administration’s plan to move the electric transportation revolution forward.
We can only hope that new battery technologies will bring less expensive batteries to market soon so that the price of these vehicles will fall, making them more affordable to municipalities and airports alike. The Earth can’t wait much longer for clean transportation options to become the norm.
Featured image courtesy of Charlotte Douglas Airport.
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