Five Easy Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint on the Ramp

June 25, 2007
As global warming and climate change dominate headlines around the world, many environmentally conscious individuals and businesses are asking “what can I do?”

As global warming and climate change dominate headlines around the world, many environmentally conscious individuals and businesses are asking “what can I do?”

The answer to that question is perplexing. There are some environmental technologies that require a significant initial investment producing payback over a long period of time. There are also simple technologies and business practices that can be implemented with lower initial investment, with immediate financial and environmental returns. The implementation of these technologies will provide lasting financial and environmental benefits.

Easy Step No. 1: Airport Lighting
Bright airport lighting is a necessary evil in passenger terminals because passengers perceive a brightly lit terminal as being a modern, well-maintained facility. The exterior lighting of the terminal is also necessary for visibility during ramp operations. The requirement for these lights is not likely to change in the near future, so the alternative is to replace the fixtures with more efficient lighting.

Simply replacing existing light bulbs with Compact Florescent Lamps (CFL) can reduce electricity consumption by 60 percent while still producing the same amount of light. For larger areas, high efficiency florescent fixtures can replace existing florescent fixtures, reducing the amount of energy consumed by up to 30 percent. Light Emitting Diodes (LED) can replace high intensity lights to save 50 percent of the electricity consumed compared to normal light bulbs, while reducing the amount of heat generated by 95 percent. LED’s are about five times more expensive than normal bulbs, but last 30 times longer. Just think of the labor savings in not changing light bulbs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 30 percent of a building’s energy consumption is used to light the facility. A 30 percent efficiency savings from lighting alone would reduce the overall electrical bill by 9 percent each year.

A 9 percent reduction in overall energy consumption does not seem like much, but consider the numbers: 10 100-watt light bulbs consume 1000 watts. In 1 year of constant operation those same light bulbs consume 8.7 million watt-hours. The average carbon dioxide emissions from a coal-fired power plant is 2,249 pounds per million watt-hours. Reducing the energy consumption of those 10 light bulbs by 30 percent would reduce the carbon dioxide emissions by 5,910 pounds per year. That is about 50 percent of the emissions from an average car for one year.

Easy Step No. 2: Maintenance
Mechanical systems are large consumers of electricity at the airport. From HVAC Systems to:

  • Jet bridges
  • Escalators
  • Baggage conveyors

Improper or untimely maintenance of mechanical systems can increase the amount of energy required to perform the same task by 10 to 50 percent.

HVAC systems are especially critical in the warmer areas of the world. Airports that continually run their HVAC systems to ensure passenger comfort must strictly maintain the manufacturer’s suggested maintenance intervals. An A/C system that is operating with low coolant levels can consume up to 50 percent more energy to produce the same volume of chilled air. (source:

Easy Step No. 3: Reduce idle Energy
Idle energy is the consumption of energy resources without any real resulting benefit. Idle energy can be found in all facets of the operation at an airport:

  • A tug idling on the ramp
  • A baggage belt that is spinning continually with no bags on it.
  • Pad lighting with no aircraft on the pad
  • Unoccupied offices with lights on
  • Unsealed doors and windows allowing ambient air to enter the building
  • Escalators running with no passengers

There are simple fixes to each of these areas:

  • Electric ramp equipment does not idle
  • Electronic eyes can turn belts on when required and off when not required
  • Place pad lighting switches on timers and allow staff to operate lights based on task requirements
  • Add light sensors to ensure the lights turn off at dawn
  • Motion sensors can turn off lights when no people are present
  • Door and window maintenance can prevent energy loss
  • Motion sensors can engage escalators when passengers approach

There are technological solutions available to reduce idle energy consumption and most of them are cost effective and simple to implement. Investment into these technologies provides annuity stream savings over the life of the equipment they regulate. In addition to the financial benefits, every watt of power saved could potentially reduce carbon emissions by 20 pounds per year.

Easy Step No. 4:
Renewable energy
While this step may require higher initial investment than the previous suggested steps, it may generate greater benefit to the environment and is becoming more cost-effective over time. Renewable energy sources available to airports are typically limited to wind, solar and in some cases wave power. All of these energy sources are less cost effective than fossil fuels, but their higher cost may be offset by grants, incentives and the availability of “carbon credits” that can generate a financial return to the operator.

The vast expanse of open space required to operate an airport may lend itself to solar energy generation. A good example of this is the FedEx cargo facility at Oakland Airport. In 2005 FedEx installed 5,769 solar modules on the roof of its sort facility. This photovoltaic array can produce 904 Kilowatts, or 80 percent of the facility’s peak power requirement. That is the equivalent of saving about 1 ton of carbon dioxide emissions per hour if the same amount of electricity was produced by a coal-burning power plant.

Wind power may also represent a viable solution for renewable energy generation at airports. A new generation of wind turbines offers benefits that may be unique to airports. One class of new wind turbines are smaller units integrated into the architecture of the building they are mounted on. They are more efficient and less intrusive than the huge turbines that are used at wind farms around the world. Additionally, their modern, sleek design may fit well with the modern architecture of many new airport structures. With these smaller turbines, it may be possible to add wind power to nearly any building, thereby capturing and harnessing the phenomenon that makes flight possible…wind.

To offset the increased cost of renewable energy, there are grants and tax breaks available to businesses that choose to implement these programs. In addition, there is a new trend to sell carbon credits to consumers who wish to reduce their carbon footprint. Virgin Atlantic has announced a program to offer their passengers the opportunity to offset the emissions of a flight by purchasing the equivalent in carbon credits.

Easy Step No. 5: Electric GSE
Converting ramp equipment from internal combustion to electric can save energy in many areas. Electric power is a more efficient use of energy than an internal combustion engine. Internal combustion engines only capture about 30 to 40 percent of the heat energy of their respective fuels and transform that into mechanical energy. Add to that the time they spend idle and that efficiency drops to 18 to 25 percent. That means that for every dollar spent on fuel, 75 cents to 82 cents is wasted as heat or idle energy.

An electric motor operating in a piece of GSE is about 92 percent efficient. Total system efficiency, which includes the addition of a battery and fast charge system, still results in approximately 65 percent total efficiency. That means that 65 cents of your electric dollar is being used to perform the work it was intended to do.

To ascertain the true cost to the environment, the efficiency of the power transmission lines and the generation station also need to be considered. The bottom-line efficiency of an electric vehicle is about 45 to 50 percent. If a power plant polluted the same amount as an internal combustion engine per watt, it’s still only half of the emissions of an internal combustion engine equivalent once you factor in efficiency.

When you combine steps four and five the benefit to the environment is significant. Electric vehicles combined with renewable sources of electricity can achieve a nearly carbon neutral vehicle operation. If you consider the reduction on reliance of fossil fuels the benefit to the environment is even greater.