There’s no range anxiety and regular recharging is easy. Yet progress on electrification of ground operations at Canadian airports is decidedly mixed
Many industry analysts contend that the future of aviation is electric or hybrid-electric. Exactly how quickly and extensively this conversion will transpire is still up for debate. For the moment, one thing is certain — in the move to electrification, at airports, the ground comes first.
Globally, electrification is already underway at many major airports as operators move away from diesel-powered ground support equipment and passenger transport. The rationale is to save money in the long-term by reducing fuel costs and also benefit the environment and the air quality, especially when fuel-driven vehicles have to operate indoors.
Airports such as Amsterdam’s Schiphol, London’s Gatwick, Germany’s Munich and Los Angeles International have made substantial investments in electric-powered passenger transport vehicles. Seattle-Tacoma, which already has an extensive electric ground services program in place, wants to electrify its entire tarmac. Once all airlines upgrade to electric ground vehicles, the airport estimates it will save $2.8 million in airline fuel costs and 10,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
In Canada, initiatives range from ambitious to uninspired. Most airports have a number of electric-vehicle charging stations in their parking lots and garages for travellers and staff, for example (Toronto’s Pearson International: more than 30; Montréal-Trudeau: 46; Vancouver International: 60). But they’ve been slower to switch their ground operations to electric, even where they are taking other measures that don’t involve electrification to reduce carbon emissions.
The most proactive on electrification, by far, is Vancouver. “In 2015, we set a goal of having 50% of the ground handling fleet running on electric power by 2020. In 2018, there were 539 licensed vehicles, 171 of which were electric — representing 32% of the total fleet,” says Marion Town, director, environment with the Vancouver Airport Authority.
In 2017, Vancouver purchased 14 vehicles for dedicated use for transporting passengers to and from aircraft parked outside the terminal, known as remote stand operations (RSO). These vehicles include eight fully electric e.Cobus buses. As YVR grows, the airport expects to add further bussing operations because of cost and efficiency — RSOs are a quarter the price of a gate attached to the terminal and they can be added faster.
The technology is there
Another major initiative at airports around the world is electrifying as much of the aircraft needs as possible, notably lighting and air conditioning, while they’re on the ground. Many of those functions are currently powered by jet fuel or diesel. Technicians at Vancouver are working with BC Hydro to explore how to make it cost-effective to use electricity. “The technology is there,” says BC Hydro senior industrial programs manager Kevin Wallace. “What’s missing is the business case, and that’s what we’re working on.”
Vancouver has installed six pre-conditioned air units (PCAs) that provide heating and cooling to aircraft when parked at gates. A total of 84 percent of Vancouver’s gates now have both PCA and ground power units to support the airport’s electrification goals, up from 42 percent in 2012.
Of note, 2012 was also the year Transport Canada launched an action plan to reduce greenhouse gases from aviation. The main emphasis there is on the carriers and their aircraft, but the department tracks and encourages progress on airport ground operations as well.
Around the country, Calgary’s airport operates 20 electric shuttle buses that move passengers between the airport’s domestic and international terminals. Each shuttle can accommodate 10 passengers and their luggage. Montreal-Trudeau has 12 electric vehicles, including one e.Cobus and a Ford F-150 pickup truck that was converted from an internal combustion engine to electric by a local company called Ecotune Automobile in 2018. The truck is used to inspect runways and supervise outdoor work. The electric drive system will lower GHGs by up to nine tonnes annually. None of Montreal’s ground-handling vehicles are electric.
“Every time a vehicle in our light fleet comes to its end of life cycle, [the airport] privileges an electrical replacement as long as it meets the operational requirements,” says spokesperson Marie-Claude Desgagnés.
Culture of sustainability
Winnipeg’s James Armstrong Richardson International Airport has converted four gas baggage tugs to electric tugs. The airport also operates an electric bus that carries passengers on a two-hour route back and forth between the airport and the city. The bus-charging station is located right in front of the airport. Charging takes 10 minutes. Built in 2014, this was first bus changing station to be installed on site at a North American airport.
“We’re trying to become more energy efficient. We’re committed to becoming carbon neutral. We’re trying to build up a culture of sustainability,” says Michael Badejo, communications specialist with Winnipeg Airports Authority. “Sustainability is at the top of the mind here.”
But, perhaps, not everywhere. In 2000, Canadian Electric Vehicles, a small B.C company that has been designing and manufacturing electric vehicles and electric vehicle components for more than 20 years, was approached by the Los Angeles International Airport to design and build an electric-powered aircraft refueling truck. More than 70 of these refueling trucks have since been converted and are in use at airports in the U.S., Europe, Middle East and Australia. However, Canadian Electric Vehicles engineer Todd Maliteare, who notes that a major motivation for the conversions “is safety,” says that the company has never been asked by a Canadian airport to do anything similar.
This story was updated with new information on May 9.