Jun 25, 2023

Missoula airport lands electric ground equipment

MISSOULA - The Missoula Montana Airport picked up four pieces of electric equipment this month courtesy of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and funding stemming from the state's share of the Volkswagon settlement.

The equipment, including one aircraft tractor and three electric baggage loaders, replaced four similar machines that were powered by diesel fuel and required hours of annual maintenance.

“We replaced three very ancient diesel belt loaders that used a lot of fuel and had a lot of maintenance expenses over the years,” said Dan Neuman, the airport's development manager. “The electric ones are low emissions, easy to maintain, easy to use and can service any aircraft that may come here.”

Montana received around $12.6 million from the national settlement with Volkswagon after the manufacturer was caught placing cheating devices on its automobiles to circumvent emission standards.

Neil Ullman, the energy resources professional with DEQ, said the agency has directed millions of dollars from the settlement toward electric vehicles and electric infrastructure. In Missoula, that has included four charging stations at the University of Montana, and four transit busses, two each for Mountain Line and UM.

The airport equipment marks the latest use of the funding.

“With all this interest in electric vehicles, and with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in the last two years — and the Volkswagen settlement — I get asked a lot about the electricity used to power those vehicles,” said Ullman. “Electric vehicles are simply much more efficient.”

Ullman said NorthWestern Energy generates roughly 60% of its electricity from renewable sources, including wind and hydro. Under that recipe, Ullman said an all-electric vehicle is emitting roughly the same amount of Co2 as a hybrid after the electricity is considered.

But an electric vehicle is more efficient at using the energy that propels it, he added.

“You lose a lot of the potential energy during internal combustion to power that (gasoline) vehicle,” he said. “You don't have that in an all-electric vehicle. They're simply more efficient in using that energy.”

While a large block of counties in eastern Montana has no electric vehicles registered with the state, the number of counties that do increase in Montana's western reaches. Flathead County leads the way followed by Gallatin County. Missoula County follows close behind.

But the number of electric vehicles in the state is increasing rapidly, Ullman said. As of this year, around 3,300 all-electric vehicles are on the road, along with 1,400 plug-in hybrids for a total of nearly 5,000 vehicles.

“That's approximately a 76% increase from what we downloaded a year ago, and it's been fairly consistent for the last two years,” he said. “They're coming in, but they're still an incredibly small number in the fleet of registered vehicles in the state of Montana.”

Ullman placed the total number of vehicles in the state at 1.6 million.

“But the infrastructure is coming. There's a lot more vehicles coming and there's going to be more funding opportunities coming out the Inflation Reduction Act,” he said.

The acquisition of new equipment at the airport will improve the facility's efforts to become more efficient. The airport recycled much of the old passenger terminal when it was razed and the new terminal was built with efficiency in mind.

The old diesel baggage loaders each consumed around 400 gallons of fuel a year. The push-back tractor consumed 371 gallons of fuel.

But the new electric loaders need no fuel and operate cleaner. The new electric tractor can handle most jets that serve Missoula with its tow capacity of 120,000 pounds.

“It's not terribly common at smaller airports,” Neuman said of the tractor. “It's easy to drive and responsive as opposed to having two different pivot points with the traditional push-back tractor.”