Major airlines now lean towards battery electric when buying new GSE, but despite its zero emission (at point of use), relative ease of installation and maintenance cost advantages, several hurdles remain. Critics of electric technology argue that it is still only suitable for smaller equipment. Others point to its sensitivity in cold weather conditions.
But it is perhaps the lack of adequate airport infrastructure that is the biggest challenge; most airports simply don't have space for alternative fuel sites, and certainly lack the means to charge electric vehicles in an efficient and systematic way.
Antoine Maguin, CEO of TLD America, remembers when TLD introduced its electric vehicles into a major US airport recently. "Everybody, including the airport, was excited about this idea but it took months to get the relevant permits and charging stations in place," he comments.
Importantly, for Tim Wix, Delta's GSE Manager and a hugely influential figure in this field, there is now a greater will for GSE managers to take a more active role in the early stages of airport terminal design. "We have to design new terminals smarter and ensure that adequate infrastructure is planned before the concrete is poured," he says.
While there are times during which the infrastructure at most airports is fully utilized, Wix believes there are still plenty of occasions when there is ample power available. "We are also exploring ways to more efficiently utilize the available resources which would greatly reduce the need for additional infrastructure," he says. "The trick is to manage that power with a smart system that can make intelligent decisions about when devices need power."
If electricity is the way forward, an efficient and reliable charging regime is crucial; in the past, it has taken six to eight hours to recharge each vehicle using individual chargers and even then vehicles couldn't be guaranteed to make it through an operational day. But more efficient batteries and better controllers are now being developed. Ramp workers are now also better trained in how to recharge and optimise the use of electric vehicles.
One breakthrough gaining plaudits is the parallel fast charging technology now in use with airlines such as Southwest and American Airlines in the US. This technology allows a vehicle to be recharged in less than one hour using a third of the power of conventional chargers. Such a system can also charge up to 10 vehicles at one station. However, Europeans are proving more skeptical, and mutter about the expense and space required to accommodate what one manufacturer describes as "a mini power station."
Many technologies have been examined, but with no concrete findings. "We have worked with GSE operators on trials of alternative fuels such as LPG, but there has been no take up as yet," reports Chris Paling, Environmental Advisor at Manchester Airport, the third largest airport in the UK. "This is because of uncertainties over the best alternative fuel to go for, such as LPG, CNG, or electric."
As ever, it boils down to cost. "Payback on investment for LPG and CNG can normally be made in a year or two because of the cheaper fuel and improved efficiency, but payback is longer for airside GSE because the tax differential between 'red' diesel and LPG/CNG doesn't offer the same payback benefits," explains Paling.
not being in a designated UK Air Quality Management Area, Manchester has followed
a strict air quality programme for more than a decade. The programme stipulates
that airside vehicles comply with set criteria to gain an airside vehicle permit.
This includes an exhaust emission test set against UK roadworthiness emission
standards. Meanwhile, the airport undertakes spot checks and non-compliant vehicles
are banned until improvements have been made. The airport also operates a voluntary
Airfield Infringement Scheme, which levies a £50 fine (US$75) for non-compliance.
"In addition, we are holding an alternative fuels 'fair' later this year so that current technologies and vehicles can be exhibited and thoughts/opinions shared," adds Paling.