Electric buses are ready for takeoff at US airports

Airports nationwide are investing millions in federal grant money to electrify their bus fleets, cutting both carbon emissions and diesel pollution.

Battery-powered buses carry passengers from parking lots to airport terminals in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Charlotte Douglas International Airport)
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Battery-powered buses are hitting streets nationwide as operators ditch their diesel-guzzling models. This week, the Biden administration awarded nearly $1 billion to help school districts revamp their yellow bus fleets and reduce kids’ exposure to air pollution. Transit agencies from Los Angeles County to New York City are working to fully electrify public transportation networks. And across the asphalt expanses of airports, electric buses are increasingly whisking passengers from terminals to tarmacs.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the largest U.S. transportation agency, has awarded more than $27 million this year to help a dozen airports purchase zero-emission buses, charging stations and equipment used to service planes at gates. That’s on top of the more than $300 million in grants it disbursed last year to electrify airport equipment. 

Electrifying airports is an important part of reaching net-zero emissions and addressing our climate crisis,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Canary Media. This funding moves us closer to this goal while helping get passengers and their luggage where they need to go.”

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Airport operations contribute a relatively tiny share — 1.7 percent — of carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. aviation sector, according to the FAA. More than 97 percent of the sector’s CO2 emissions are from burning fossil jet fuel on U.S. domestic and international flights. 

Yet buses and other ground equipment can still spew harmful diesel exhaust into the communities surrounding airports. And unlike replacing jet fuel with hydrogen or battery power, or using 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel, electrifying transit vehicles is something the aviation industry can do immediately to reduce greenhouse gases.

Our largest effort to reduce emissions is to electrify our entire shuttle bus fleet,” said Haley Gentry, CEO of Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina. 

It’s the world’s sixth-busiest airport for passenger traffic, and it is aiming to retire its fleet of nearly 60 diesel shuttle buses and replace it with 50 electric models by the end of this decade. With the help of nearly $10 million in FAA grants, operators have so far purchased 10 battery-powered buses, placed orders for five more and installed 11 electric charging stations, she said.

The electric fleet includes models from both U.S. manufacturer Proterra, which made the vehicles in Greenville, South Carolina, and Canadian company New Flyer, which produced the buses used at the airport at a facility in Anniston, Alabama.

We’re figuring out what is a good fit for us through some trial and error,” Gentry said. Some of the models seem better suited for use on city streets. Buses that shuttle passengers from parking lots to airport terminals need to be able to lower their floor or entrance doors more than typical transit buses do so people can easily haul their luggage on and off.

At around $750,000 each, new electric buses cost twice as much as diesel versions. But airport officials have said they expect to save money in the long term due to the lower costs of operating and maintaining the battery-powered models. Gentry said the electric buses also offer a much quieter ride and are smoother in stop-and-go conditions. 

Not to mention, of course, there’s zero diesel fuel burn,” she added.

Battery buses are just the start of airport electrification efforts

An electric bus awaits passengers at Sacramento International Airport in California. (Proterra)

In California, Sacramento International Airport (SMF) has 10 electric buses and eight more on the way. Operators are working to replace their entire fleet of 35 buses, which run on compressed natural gas — a fuel that produces fewer smog-related tailpipe emissions than diesel but is still primarily composed of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. SMF received $4.6 million in FAA grants last year to start making the switch.

The midsized airport chose Proterra to make its electric buses, a decision driven largely by the constraints of the airport’s maintenance facility, said Bree Taylor, an airport planner for Sacramento County.

Some electric bus manufacturers, including New Flyer and BYD, place batteries on the roofs of vehicles. But SMF’s facility isn’t set up for mechanics to fix bus parts or retool battery systems at heights of nine-plus feet. We need a floor-mounted battery,” Taylor said. The airport also didn’t want to bet on a fledgling vehicle-maker with an untested bus; planners wanted to order models that were already in operation elsewhere. 

The Proterra buses primarily recharge at a bus lot located near the airport’s 7.9-megawatt solar farm. During the day, drivers can plug in the vehicles between runs to top off batteries with solar electricity — a practice known as opportunity charging” — though the buses do most of their battery charging while parked for the night.

As SMF works to add dozens more electric buses in the coming years, planners are also bracing for a surge in electricity demand from transportation, Taylor said.

Rental-car agencies such as Hertz are adding thousands of electric passenger cars and trucks to their fleets nationwide, while airport taxi operators are also trading combustion engines for batteries. Private companies that operate baggage handlers, airport tugs and other ground equipment are also needing to plug in more. And, if battery-powered commuter aircraft ever catch on, they’d need to draw significant amounts of electricity from the airport’s grid.

Where we’re at right now is just realizing there’s this huge [electricity] demand coming our way, and we have a finite supply,” Taylor said. Moving forward, our very next steps are going to be to research the different demands from these different sectors, then work with our utility” — the Sacramento Municipal Utility District — to increase that supply.”

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.