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Operation Net Zero: Enjoy Greener Skies Ahead

Airplane going green - green aviation
Nick Fishburn, ENV SP

Nick Fishburn, ENV SP

Aviation Analyst

It’s hard to go even a few days without being reminded of our progress toward an electrified world. In addition to the abundance of new EV charging stations popping up at local retailers, garages, restaurant parking lots, etc., many organizations (public and private) are converting their fleets to electric due to corporate zero emission initiatives, government mandates, or funding that is tied to meeting these goals. These tremors have powerful implications as we move toward a zero-carbon future and aviation plays no small part in reducing our total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Sustainability Efforts in the Aviation Industry

The Airports Going Green conference (AGG), presented by the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and hosted by the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) highlighted the aviation industry’s substantial efforts in the areas of sustainability and resilience. Paired with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in the same week, the virtual conference proved to be even more monumental in its presentation of where the industry currently stands and where it is headed.

Many of the expert panelists at AGG focused on the topic of net-zero carbon emissions—a buzz phrase that is now backed by some compelling initiatives. According to a presentation by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), aircraft operations account for more than 80% of aviation emissions, with the rest belonging to airport-controlled operations, highlighting the environmental benefits of moving away from fossil fuels.

Major Players Are Moving the Net-Zero Needle

Frannie Levar, Director of Environmental Sustainability for United Airlines, offered insight into the sustainability practices of the major air carrier. Levar shared United’s plan to “achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 through a three-pronged approach, including the increased use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), a drop-in ready alternative fuel derived from a variety of feedstocks, including wastes diverted from landfills”, which would otherwise produce methane gas emissions in addition to the fossil-based jet fuel usually burned. This was seen in action on December 1, 2021, when United operated a flight using 100% SAF jet fuel on a flight from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to Washington Reagan without incident, proving the viability of this technology. As United moves forward, “they are hopeful that innovations like electric and hydrogen combustion engines can support regional routes and urban mobility, but at this time, those technologies are not yet seen as viable options for long-haul flights,” commented Levar.

On the airside operations front, Marion Town, Director of Climate & Environment for the Vancouver International Airport Authority (YVR) remarked that YVR also plans to go net-zero. The airport authority was able to change their goal year from 2050 to 2030 after seeing the financial benefits of running a more sustainable operation through electrified Ground Service Equipment (GSE) fleets and at-gate Ground Power Units for aircrafts to plug into when powered down, as opposed to burning fuel using their Auxiliary Power Unit.

Solving the Electrification Infrastructure Challenge

As EV innovation progresses towards greater societal implementation, airports are primed to lead this charge by employing fully electrified GSE fleets. Accessing the electric power needed to charge airport GSE fleets without fossil-based fuel is a large part of this conversation. Electrifying everything requires upgrading key infrastructure to support such high energy conversion, which means solving this challenge presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to take our airports fully electric by the dawn of the 22nd century.

About the Expert

Nick Fishburn, ENV SP

Nick Fishburn, ENV SP

Nick is a Civil EIT specializing in airfield design, planning, and relevant sustainability initiatives. Having worked on projects at airports ranging in size from single-runway general aviation airfields to large commercial hubs over the last 3.5 years, Nick has honed skills related to the design and management of airfield pavements, construction administration, and developing construction drawings and details. Past sustainability initiatives that Nick has helped bring to fruition includes integrating the use of carbon mineralization technology into the PCC specification, ensuring all on-airfield earthwork is completely balanced, and maximizing the use of recycled crushed concrete into new pavement sections.


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