Article

Ramping Up for Increasing Airport Electrification

Recognizing which aspects of aviation will electrify sooner could help airports optimize their infrastructure planning.


The move toward electrification is increasing across a wide range of industries. Representing an element of the transportation sector, airport planners are facing a fundamental shift in the demands on the electrical infrastructure of their facilities. To adjust, they must consider how electrification is affecting their facilities — today, in the near term, and into the decarbonized future.

Airport electrification includes a lot of different things and can affect both commercial and general aviation airports in very different ways. The trick is to review exactly what is likely to be electrified, how soon it will occur and how much power it will require.

The big idea catching everyone’s attention is the development of electrified aircraft. But the simple truth is that given the technological and procedural challenges still to be overcome, it will take longer for those aircraft to arrive in large numbers than for airports to build the infrastructure needed to support them. Although electrified aircraft are already flying, they have not completed the necessary certifications for largescale production. In addition, without clearcut standardization for the charging of aircraft, airports are even more challenged to provide infrastructure. Questions range from “What plug to use?” to “What fire protection measures are required to charge aircraft in a hangar?” What is built, maintained and improved today must focus on other, much more imminent aspects of electrification.

 

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The move toward electrification is increasing across a wide range of industries. Representing an element of the transportation sector, airport planners are facing a fundamental shift in the demands on the electrical infrastructure of their facilities. To adjust, they must consider how electrification is affecting their facilities — today, in the near term, and into the decarbonized future.

Airport electrification includes a lot of different things and can affect both commercial and general aviation airports in very different ways. The trick is to review exactly what is likely to be electrified, how soon it will occur and how much power it will require.

The big idea catching everyone’s attention is the development of electrified aircraft. But the simple truth is that given the technological and procedural challenges still to be overcome, it will take longer for those aircraft to arrive in large numbers than for airports to build the infrastructure needed to support them. Although electrified aircraft are already flying, they have not completed the necessary certifications for largescale production. In addition, without clearcut standardization for the charging of aircraft, airports are even more challenged to provide infrastructure. Questions range from “What plug to use?” to “What fire protection measures are required to charge aircraft in a hangar?” What is built, maintained and improved today must focus on other, much more imminent aspects of electrification.

Plugged in to the Possibilities

Electrified ground support equipment (eGSE) is already on track to become commonplace at major airports. Battery powered tugs, baggage handling equipment and other GSE are effective tools for beginning the path to an electrified future. Adoption of eGSE can help both airlines and airports realize their carbon reduction goals.

Although the simplistic approach of adding all of the new charging equipment to the airport’s current peak demand could suggest daunting requirements for the infrastructure, many airports have been able to utilize charging strategies to limit the demands rather than having to rebuild or add electrical services. While electrical infrastructure improvements are still needed to get power from existing distribution equipment to the chargers, the greater challenge is typically in locating charging equipment where it will not interfere with operations around the airport’s constricted apron area.

Rental car facilities and taxi/ride-hailing service staging areas are another leading aspect of interest in terms of electrification as companies begin the transition to fleets of electric vehicles (EVs). The needs of these facilities undoubtedly will evolve as their fleets transition, but Level 2 and other highspeed chargers are certain to be needed. EVs are particularly challenged by colder weather, so it is likely that airports in northern cities will see demand for EV charge points for functions such as limo services at executive airports earlier than similar airports in the South. In addition, airside vehicles that cannot be stuck charging for extended periods — maintenance pickups, VIP cars and, especially, security vehicles — will also need fast-charging infrastructure. The need to maintain adequate power to support fast charging could push airports to add smaller-scale, 1 megawatt substations to support the demand as internal combustion vehicles are phased out.

One other application worth noting is the nascent urban air mobility (UAM) market — flying EV ride-hailing services. While this possibility will certainly include terminals at airports, that is not that market’s primary focus; these companies are more focused on moving individuals from one part of a city to another.

What to Do Today — and Tomorrow

The practical reality at present is that the expansion of electrification of airports has been slow to gain momentum. Many small steps have been taken, but the requirements for the big steps are still coalescing. The smart play is to actively wait and monitor developments as new technologies emerge and gradually become more commonplace.

The key to this approach, however, is to begin developing comprehensive plans to support future electrification. This would include steps such as upgrading aged equipment in anticipation of near-term electrification projects. In addition, those plans should include consideration for how expectations will change regarding resiliency requirements. At first, electrification efforts may utilize fossil-fueled equipment during power outages, but over the longer run, the transition toward full electrification will compel greater prioritization for having highly resilient power.

EVs and eGSE do not need to charge all the time, and if the power goes out, they can continue to operate as long as they retain a charge. The question becomes how long it will be before the power is restored. If it’s only an hour or two, that may barely cause a hiccup in operations. If it’s a day or more, that becomes a much bigger problem.

As every function and activity at the airport becomes dependent on electricity, backup power sources and energy storage will become critical to operations. Where many airports are currently content with individual generators and similar resources, demand will eventually reach the tipping point to force investment in larger-scale backup power infrastructure. Unlike traditional diesel generators, battery energy storage can also help the airport manage its demand — not only reducing upfront capital costs but also avoiding high utility demand charges.

Ideally, making such decisions is part of long-term master planning, but it is also being considered on an ad hoc basis at this relatively early stage of electrification. Effectively serving as landlords, airport operators need to satisfy their tenants’ requirements, but they also don’t want to invest too heavily in new infrastructure that might be underutilized.

Although future demand could grow so much that an onsite substation might need to be added, it’s important to look before leaping. Airport operators need to satisfy their users’ requirements, but they also don’t want to invest too heavily in new infrastructure that might be underutilized for years. Aside from some of the largest airports, many should expect a more modest increase in their need for power, such as a 4- to 12-MW substation. Local utility companies can typically install such a substation in less than two years. Given that largescale electrification efforts are more than two years away and are likely to change in their exact needs, airports are better served by planning and being ready than by executing too early.

Ultimately, airport operators face a balancing act as they weigh the options of waiting against the financial risks of investing in infrastructure that may be the wrong size or in the wrong location to meet the needs of a future that is not yet clear. Although it is too early to definitely know where to build substations for fleets of electric aircraft, it is not premature to include allowances for eGSE when replacing electrical equipment or to start conceptual planning for the infrastructure to support electrification efforts. Now is the time to develop a flexible road map for electrification so that airports are ready to seize opportunities to invest wisely in their infrastructure, instead of trying to catch up.

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Author

Eric Putnam

Senior Associate Electrical Engineer