Aviation, Energy, eVTOL, Transportation, Vertiports

For a Formula One racing car driver, agility, flexibility and a fast pit stop time can be the difference between winning and losing a race. The same nimbleness is needed to develop electric Vertical Take Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft, a new, fully electric aircraft that takes off vertically like a helicopter and flies horizontally like a traditional airplane. For this burgeoning industry, agile, flexible energy planning and implementation solutions will be critical to winning their race and making eVTOLs a viable business venture.

Grid updates

eVTOLs are fueled by electricity, requiring significant energy to be generated and transported to vertiports — the facilities that support eVTOLs operations — via the utility grid. With numerous gates, each capable of charging an eVTOL, a busy vertiport could potentially consume over 5 megawatts of power, akin to the demand of 6,000 homes.

To meet these new loads, utility companies may need to upgrade equipment and infrastructure, deploy smart grid technology to manage peak demands, and engage in planning for vertiport placement. Vertiport operators are looking at ways to minimize grid upgrade costs and placement restrictions through innovative operational strategies, and utility companies that actively participate in vertiport placement will be better prepared to manage these new loads.

Advancing synergies

In many parts of the country, commercial energy rates have a peak demand and an energy consumption component. This means that a large spike in electricity demand for just 15 minutes over a month raises the unit cost of energy for an otherwise low consumption facility. For a vertiport where aircraft “fuel” is electricity, demand spikes can be extremely high and without thoughtful management and planning, the demand charge for meeting these peaks could more than double energy costs.

Traditional aviation markets have shown that fuel costs can be a major obstacle during early roll-out phases, not to mention significantly impacting long-term operator success. Understanding how much and when energy will be consumed will help identify potential synergies to offset costs, such as providing charging opportunities to other industries like electric vehicles. By spreading the demand cost across users, vertiport operations can become substantially more cost-efficient.

Resilient energy infrastructure

For eVTOL operators, aircraft turnaround time will be a significant factor in viability. These aircrafts will carry only about six people at a time so, like the Formula One pit stop, getting in and out quickly by minimizing gate time will be essential for operators to make a profit. Charging speed is expected to have the greatest impact on gate time, so it will be critical to get the energy infrastructure right. This means balancing short-term charging infrastructure investments with the ability to support the market’s rapid innovation while future-proofing for likely medium- to long-term changes to the charging process.

Deploying a scalable strategy for energy usage allows a vertiport to support short-term and long-term charging needs. Such a strategy could include using energy storage to accommodate anticipated surge charging over short periods while also anticipating programmatic impacts that potential innovations and even alternative fuels introduce. A scalable energy usage strategy enables vertiports to support short-term, day-one charging needs as well as longer term operational growth without requiring excessive initial capital investment. Our energy infrastructure professionals can help clients gauge current and future needs, providing the essential agility, flexibility and scalability to adapt and evolve as the eVTOL industry matures.

For the future

The emergence of new and varied fuels for eVTOLs will add further complexity, demanding even more agility and flexibility in infrastructure planning. Currently, most eVTOLs are powered by electricity and have a battery on board for storage. As the industry evolves, operators may consider switching fuels — for example, using hydrogen for on-board fuel cells — which currently looks to be the most viable alternative to battery-based eVTOLs. Hydrogen power will likely reduce aircraft weight allowing for improved eVTOL range.

Green hydrogen, from renewable sources, could be generated off-site and transferred to vertiport storage tanks, similar to airport fuel tanks. As hydrogen infrastructure capabilities develop, it will become increasingly feasible to integrate hydrogen into a scalable vertiport. For the initial eVTOL network roll outs, this approach can be combined with limited electrical infrastructure investment with the capacity to feed an on-site electrolyzer and hydrogen storage/fueling system, supporting increased operations without significantly impacting the local electrical utility grid.

With a new aviation industry on the horizon, eVTOL operators and utility companies are considering innovative solutions to current energy challenges. Delivering answers that are scalable, forward thinking, flexible and agile will be key in delivering energy to these new aircrafts and, in turn, making eVOTLs viable and integral parts of our transportation future.  

Originally published Sep 8, 2022

Author: Calum Thompson