Sea-Tac Airport goes green with electric vehicles

Staff writerMarch 18, 2014 

The characteristic aroma of diesel exhaust and spent jet fuel is fading at Sea-Tac Airport.

In the latest phase of a program aimed at cutting fuel consumption and pollution near the busy air terminal, Sea-Tac Tuesday formally introduced its new fleet of electrically-powered vehicles to move baggage and planes at the airport's gates.

Working with the airport's biggest tenant, SeaTac-based Alaska Airlines, airport authorities have retired some 200-diesel-powered baggage tugs, planeside luggage conveyors and pushback aircraft tugs and replaced them with battery-powered vehicles recharged from a network of electrical connections lining aircraft ramps on the northern side of the airport.

Those 296 charging locations will be expanded to 576 that will provide battery renewal throughout the airport by September.

The switch to electric ramp vehicles is the latest part of a major environmental effort at the airport aimed at cutting fossil fuel use at Sea-Tac. The airport has posted a video explaining the program here

It follows last year's conversion to a central conditioned air system throughout the airport that ended the practice of aircraft running their jet-fuel-powered auxiliary power units at the gate to keep the planes' interiors heated and cooled while they are being loaded and unloaded.

Instead, the aircraft are connected with flexible ducts that provide heated or cooled air directly to the planes' interiors from the airport's central heating and cooling plant.  That program is saving airlines about $15 million in fuel costs and 40,000 tons of emissions annually.

Those two fuel and pollution-saving systems along with the airport's new fleet of compressed natural gas-powered buses serving its rental car terminal and its high-efficiency hybrid or CNG taxis have made Sea-Tac one of the nation's most environment-friendly airports, said the airport director Mark Reis.

Jeff Butler, Alaska Airlines' vice president of airport operations and service, said the electrical airport vehicles have proven to be a hit with airline employees and ramp workers. 

"At first there was some skepticism," he said. "but these vehicles have proven themselves in snow and rain and every weather condition."

Alaska and the airport began testing the electric baggage tugs and conveyors months ago at Alaska's sister airline, Horizon Air.  When that experiment proved successful, he said, the airline expanded their use to include the larger aircraft in Alaska's own fleet.

Dave Soike, Sea-Tac's director of facilities, said other airlines including Southwest, United and Delta have expressed interest in converting their ground fleets to electric power.

Besides cutting emissions, (a 10,000-ton reduction in greenhouse gases yearly) the electric conversion ultimately will save Sea-Tac's airline tenants $2.8 million in fuel costs annually.

The electric vehicles not only produce no local pollution, they're less noisy and require less maintenance than the vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.

The electric equipment is recharged at "charging corrals" located beside the airport gates. The equipment's intermittent use allows them to be "refueled" during periods when airport traffic is light."

Butler said a typical full charge on most of the equipment will last about 2 1/2 days of normal usage without recharging, but most equipment is frequently recharged.

The conversion to electric vehicles was funded in part by federal grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Federal Aviation Administration.  Airlines are also paying a portion of the cost for replacing fossil-fuel vehicles and in higher rental rates.

In addition to the ramp-side pollution abatement efforts, the airport has equipped its garage with 48 electrical vehicle recharging stations, the most of any North American airport, said Sea-Tac officials.

Those recharging stations, said Soike, are well-utilized.  There are days, he said, when most or all of those recharging stations are full. The airport isn't charging for the electrical top-offs beyond the price customers pay to park in the garage.

Those charging stations now are limited to 110-volts, but the airport is hoping to find funding to up the power of those stations to 220 volts to speed up recharging.




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