Electrifying Ground Services Equipment: Challenges & Opportunities

By Ksenia Trubacheva.


With aviation in the media’s spotlight and policymaking as a highly polluting transportation sector, the seamless but essential backstage Ground Services industry often ends up being overlooked and left in the shadows. Although Ground Services Equipment (GSE) only contributes a small share to the aviation industry’s overall CO2 emissions (between <1% to 4%), this is far easier to reduce than mobilising tonnes of ethically questionable sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) to meet the growing demand for air travel [1, p. 10]. This aviation sub-sector requires mobile machinery for a variety of vital procedures, from getting luggage on board by using belt loaders to starting the aircraft engine with Air Start Units. This easily makes GSE the low-hanging fruit in the industry for a sustainable transition. However, this machinery still predominantly operates on diesel, and with electric alternatives being commercially available for most types of ground services equipment, the obvious question arises: “Why haven’t they switched to electric?”.

Challenges associated with GSE electrification.

First of all, technology availability does not always translate into accessibility. Even if we ignore the high upfront costs associated with replacing a fleet of heavy-duty machinery with electric alternatives, what would be the point if they were unusable due to a lack of charging infrastructure? Given that the busiest global airports were built in the early to mid-last century, future sustainability concerns and energy transition requirements were not accounted for in the planning and construction. Today this presents a major challenge to reboot airports to provide necessary charging infrastructure for GSE electrification. Limited space for charging and lack of spare grid capacity for installing extra charging points are the main infrastructure barriers to furthering fleet electrification. To achieve highly efficient use of electric GSE, charging ports should be located within proximity to the aircraft to minimise electrical energy being wasted on driving. However, due to the nature of aviation activities, the airside cannot be congested with inactive charging GSE, consequently resulting in a logistical dilemma. Nevertheless, the pressure on greening in the transportation industry is fuelling innovative solutions, such as power-sharing from the passenger bridges (e.g. EcoGate by ITW) which could potentially overcome spatial and grid constraints to enable future electrification [2]. 

Aside from physical constraints, electrification is often impeded by a lack of incentive to be the first mover. Who should be responsible for the installation of charging stations? Electrification requires close collaboration of airport authorities and ground services providers without it being clear if the user should pay for the infrastructure provision. Lack of monopoly over operations at a specific airport or terminal, as well as the contract-based nature of ground services provision, inhibits the incentive of long-term infrastructure investments on-site from the equipment operators’ perspective and leaves the ball in the airport operator’s court. The latter agent needs to be certain that the infrastructure investment will be compatible with the currently used electrical GSE to make the transition from the status quo worthwhile. Transparency in cooperation and external subsidies would help to ensure the optimal outcome of introducing electrification infrastructure and accelerate the transition.

Why is electric not a panacea?

Whilst the investments are finally being mobilised into mega-projects, such as the $18Bn new Terminal One at JFK, to enable the use of electric equipment, there is still a need to purchase new machinery which has a long lifespan (averaging 15-20 years) [3]. The lack of infrastructure today, therefore, slows down the transition for the next decade due to the “locked-in” nature of old diesel technology. A temporary solution provided by some manufacturers to this issue is hybrid-powered GSE equipment, which could be converted to fully electric versions once the infrastructure catches up with the desired pace of transition. 

Furthermore, in most countries, electricity mostly comes from non-renewable sources. Although electrification would provide zero tail-pipe emissions, it does not ensure CO2 cuts, but simply transfers them from Scope 1 to Scope 2. With coal and natural gas still making up more than half of the electricity supply sources, electrification may not always lead to lower carbon emissions [4]. The good news is that many governments and airports are working towards using a higher share of renewables in electricity generation, which opens possibilities for further Scope 2 reduction in the future.

Lack of electrification readiness does not leave diesel as the only option for current GSE operators. Green-oriented airports such as Schiphol and Stockholm Arlanda have already made a switch to HVO100, a type of biodiesel produced from processed waste and vegetable oils, offering a 90% CO2 reduction compared to diesel compatible with current diesel GSE [5]. Although biodiesel presents a good temporary solution, it is not sustainable long-term, as the International Energy Agency states that with a growing demand for biofuels, there are increasing pressures on the supply of feedstock [6].

Concluding thoughts

Whilst the ground services industry has not been receiving much attention to boost sustainable transition, change is underway as it is becoming mandatory for airports and airlines to report and be held accountable for the Scope 3 emissions. To enable the transition, technology and infrastructure investments are essential and, due to the scale of the projects, may require state intervention. While there are many challenges arising from close collaboration and co-dependence of airport operators, airlines, and ground services providers’ increased societal pressure and publicity could lead to a virtuous cycle reducing the overall carbon footprint of the aviation sector.

References:

[1]n Heathrow, “Heathrow’s Net Zero Plan,” Heathrow, February 2022.


[2] EcoGate, “EcoGate – towards the future of airport gates,” ITW GSE, [Online]. Available: https://itwgse.com/ecogate/. [Accessed 2024 January 9].


[3] N. Y. State, “Governor Hochul Announces Groundbreaking of $9.5 Billion New Terminal One in a Major Step Forward for Port Authority’s JFK Transformation,” New York State, 8 September 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-hochul-announces-groundbreaking-95-billion-new-terminal-one-major-step-forward-port. [Accessed 9 January 2024].


[4] D. D’Ambrosio and M. Schoenfisch, “Electricity,” IEA, 11 July 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.iea.org/energy-system/electricity. [Accessed 9 January 2024].


[5] GBF, “Our Incredible Liquid,” GBF, [Online]. Available: https://www.gbf.ltd/gd. [Accessed 9 January 2024].

[6] IEA, “Is the biofuel industry approaching a feedstock crunch?,” IEA, December 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.iea.org/reports/is-the-biofuel-industry-approaching-a-feedstock-crunch. [Accessed 9 January 2024].

 

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