Going the green mile

Electric pushback tug

Electric GSE and other airside vehicles can make a big difference to an airport’s emissions and pollution problem. But how do they persuade carriers and other stakeholders to buy into equipment replacement initiatives? Gary Mason reports.

How can airports substantially reduce their carbon and pollutant footprint? There are clear limitations on this. The green house gases and pollutants generated at airports mostly come from aircraft and the surrounding transportation infrastructure  – whether that is vehicles and motorways or other forms of transport taking passengers and goods to and from the airfield and terminal buildings.

But if you delve down a little deeper, particularly at bigger, busy airports with a lot of ground movements, the pollutants produced by GSE and other airside vehicles is a significant factor. The simple answer to this problem is to convert the airport’s GSE fleet to greener electric or hydrogen power, but this is not as straightforward as it appears.

Firstly, GSE equipment may not be owned and operated by the airport but by a number of different third party providers who are employed directly by carriers. Second, how do you ensure with electric GSE fleets that there are enough power re-charging points airside for all the GSE vehicle operators working at the airport? Third and most important, are alternative power GSE fleets reliable in all weathers and are they a cost-effective solution for airports large and small?

These issues were discussed at the Airports Going Green Conference at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport last month. Nate Kimball is sustainability manager at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The authority operates five airports including JFK, LaGuardia and Newark.

“We have a huge number of carriers at our major airports  – they are not a single hub airport for one airline,” he says. “So when we talk about Ground Support Equipment it concerns multiple operators. This can make data collection very difficult. When we looked at our green house gases inventory while GSE equipment only contributes 5 per cent of our total green house gas emissions, you essentially have very old equipment at the airports contributing almost 19 per cent of NO2 emissions so that is a big air quality concern for us.”

When the port authority did an inventory among all its GSE stakeholders it found that there were 4,500 vehicles or pieces of equipment at the airports and a number of them dated from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

This explained the high levels of air pollutants caused directly be GSE operations. “It is a concern that when we are looking to grow and add capacity at our major airports that we are bumping up against legally enforceable air emissions limits,” Kimball said. Ongoing upgrades of the airport infrastructure has presented an opportunity to look at the replacement of these ageing GSE fleets. The authority is in the middle of a $4 billion redevelopment at LaGuardia airport, which includes the construction of a new 35-gate terminal. The authority went through the public/private partnership that is financing the construction and operation of the new terminal and put in a requirement to electrify the GSE vehicle fleet that will service the new facility. This covers the three main pieces of equipment used at the airport, which the authority considers make the most impact on emissions – baggage tags, belt loaders and push back tractors.

“By the time this terminal is built the intention is that those pieces of equipment will be electrified,” says Kimball. “In addition the terminal operator will have the infrastructure in place to support that.”

The authority is also reaching out to airlines to encourage them to  access the $2 billion in Federal funding available from the diesel emissions fines imposed on Volkswagen by the US government in order to finance major lower emissions projects. The settlement terms imposed by the fine specifically state that the money can be used to replace airport GSE fleets with greener vehicles.

“This only came out a couple of months ago but is something that really interests us and we would like to go into partnership with the multiple carriers who are stakeholders at our airports,” he says.

Although the port authority has jurisdiction over five airports it actually only directly operates one terminal in that entire estate – the rest are operated by third parties which means it does not have a great deal of operational control at the airports. This makes co-ordinating green vehicle initiatives across the entire infrastructure that much harder. “However, in our view electric GSE just makes sense,” he adds. “A lot of airlines are keeping these pieces of equipment for 40-plus years so for them maybe it doesn’t makes sense to invest in an entirely new piece of equipment. But operationally, in terms of cost there is a benefit and there is also a safety benefit as you are not fuelling equipment airside and you are not having to bring across tankers.”

While many airports are now much more focused on genuinely reducing their emissions there is a danger that some of this activity can be regarded by critics as “green washing” or “eco bling” in which fairly token steps are taken to put a gloss on the high level of emissions produced at major airports.

Andrew Chen is Emissions Strategy Manager at London Heathrow Airport – the UK hub that has just been given the long-awaited Government green light to build a third runway but still faces major opposition from environmental groups and will have its emissions monitored extremely closely.

He says that airport vehicles and airport-related traffic on the transportation network make up a relatively small proportion of the airport’s overall carbon contribution. “The elephant in the room for us is aircraft as it is for every airport,” he adds. But the local air quality picture is very different. He says that NO2 levels are being exceeded largely by diesel emissions from vehicles on the roads around the airport. Although he says that Heathrow’s airside vehicles contribute relatively little to the air quality issues to the north of the M4 motorway where the emissions are highest, there needs to be incentives to attract more green vehicles to the airport in the first place.

This means there is now a major focus on electric vehicles. “There has been an investment case for greener vehicle charging, we have had trials and a green vehicle partnership,” he says. “This has provided an incentive for spending money to switch vehicles over and to meet some of our targets.” One of these is that all the airport-owned or operated cars will be electric by 2020 and the airport will spend £2 million by the end of this year on electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

A study has been made of airside vehicles which provides the airport management with accurate telematics data of where those vehicles spend the most dwell time in order to provide potential infrastructure charging hotspots.  “We have a burning issue to provide electricity charging infrastructure to provide power for those vehicles which need it now,” Chen says. For example, there are currently 21 electric vehicle charging points for passengers in the airport car parks but more are needed.

So what are the main obstacles these airports face when they look to replace their airside vehicle fleets with greener models or look to attract more third party green vehicles to the airport’s location? How can they persuade carriers that it is a commercially good idea?

Sara Lindenfeld is sustainability analyst with JetBlue Airways, which is based in New York. The carrier has an electric GSE vehicle programme which is now fully operational. But it first started to use electric vehicles 10 years ago when it invested in some electric GSE equipment. She says not a lot of thought went into how they would be used which meant that the vehicles were not working a lot of the time because they hadn’t been charged. The batteries were not being maintained properly which was also causing problems and in general “the technology just was not as good as it is now,” she says.

She says there can be a perception that electric GSE equipment can be unreliable or “just doesn’t work” particularly at airports that have very cold winters. But this is not the case. “I was told that electric GSE might be fine for Florida but it was no good in New York or New Jersey because when it snowed the vehicles would just stop.”

A seven-month trial with electric GSE started when a number of manufacturers provided the carrier with nine vehicles and charging stations at Buffalo and JFK – two of the coldest airports the carrier operates from with the highest levels of snow fall. She says this proved they were effective even in very cold conditions.

But another issue for airports and carriers using electric GSE is providing the right recharging infrastructure to make sure the equipment is being used in an effective way. Andrew Chen from Heathrow says that this needs to be a mix between “opportunity and rapid focused-based” facilities.

Heathrow has a total of 8,000 vehicles operating airside and 12 per cent are electric – most of them baggage tugs and the rest small cars and vans. “For GSE kit that is going to be parked at the ramp you need dedicated recharging points,” he says.  “But for the other vehicles there are charging points that have popped up organically just to meet the need. But that is not a healthy solution to the problem.

“Our investment plan is looking at establishing three or four rapid charging sites that are concentrated and then as many sites as possible for opportunistic overnight charging. Because we have a curfew and noise reduction regulations there is a down period where not as many ground handlers are working so there are a lot of vehicles that can plug in overnight.”

The problem for larger airports that have multiple ground handlers employed as third parties is getting all the actors together to convert the GSE fleets and getting the charging infrastructure right. Heathrow says a way around this is to find “champions” among carriers and GSE companies in order to spread best practice.

But the economics of electric versus traditional vehicles are not always straightforward. Andrew Chen says: “We have very low diesel costs and proportionately higher electricity costs. Tax free diesel for all those airside vehicles makes it difficult to stack up to electricity driven vehicles.”

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