eVTOLs are poised for take-off — Can your utility take charge?

Volocopter 2X at IAA 2017

When most of us think about the electrification of transportation, electric vehicles (EVs) and buses come to mind. Very few think to look to the sky, but with the electrification of aviation continuing to escalate, that’s where many companies might find new customers.

Although it sounds futuristic, electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft offers a new form of urban mobility that will be here sooner than most people think. Many organizations see the benefit of urban air mobility and eVTOL — as of July 2020, there are some 300 eVTOL projects and vehicles in development.

Some vehicles will be human operated, some won’t. Some will be designed to carry people, while others will tout cargo. Some are less practical — such as the flying bathtub drone created by YouTube stars — and some, like Uber Air, Beta Technologies and Heart Aerospace, are planning to launch regional electric flight capabilities that aim to be big business.

But electric flying requires significant energy requirements and charging infrastructure, and utilities need to get on board as a lack of planning could end up grounding this promising technology and the load growth opportunities it presents.

eVTOLs offer opportunity

Uber plans to launch “shared air transportation” between suburbs and cities in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia, as early as 2023. “Imagine traveling from San Francisco’s Marina to work in downtown San Jose”•a drive that would normally occupy the better part of two hours”•in only 15 minutes,” states an Uber Elevate white paper.

A study by analysts at Nexa Advisors and the Vertical Flight Society predicts that the urban air mobility sector could see as much as $318 billion invested in it over the next 20 years. The study, Urban Air Mobility — Economics and Global Markets, predicts several ways this new technology will come to market. These include airport shuttle services, on-demand air taxis, business aviation emergency services, and charter flights of up to 250 miles.

Integrating into cities can be challenging, especially considering noise levels and the imperative to deploy clean transportation solutions. Following advances on the ground, new urban air mobility aircraft will be powered by electricity, which translates into big load impacts for utilities.

Keeping a charge

eVTOL charging won’t be comparable to the power draws associated with regular EV charging. Flying vehicles need incredibly large amounts of power for short periods of time. That’s because operators won’t fly once then charge overnight, as people do with household EVs. They are more likely to fly, offload passengers, then turn around and fly again in 15 minutes or less. This is where the high demand comes in, and utilities should be thinking — now — about how they can serve that future load.

On the high side, some could draw as much as 600 kW or more while charging, and may ultimately leverage the megawatt-capable charging standards that are currently under development for semi-trucks. Given that power consumption, researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, developed a model that assumes eight eVTOL charging stations at a regional vertiport. To service charging needs, the researchers concluded that this eight-pod vertiport would require approximately 50 MWh — or 50,000 kWh — of energy per day. In comparison, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that the average American driving an EV 13,500 miles per year would require 4,000 kWh of energy — for the entire year.

Wherever they become part of the transportation mix, vertiports and eVTOL charging stations — like electric bus depots — will necessitate some of the biggest electric loads that a utility serves.

Sky-high Planning

Based on these power requirements, utility distribution systems may require significant upgrades to mitigate equipment overloads from eVTOL charging and charging peaks. Upgrade requirements for a specific project depend on existing equipment capacity and the load of the connected site, as well as existing circuits and substations. Black & Veatch outlined potential upgrades as part of the NIA-NASA Urban Air Mobility Electric Infrastructure Study commissioned by NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace.

Utilities are already thinking about how EVs will impact their businesses and what changes they will prompt and are engaging with transit agencies as they work towards electrification. In response to Black & Veatch’s 2019 Strategic Directions: Electric Report survey, which polled nearly 900 electric industry stakeholders, more than half of the respondents (52 percent) said they are “very engaged” with their local transit agencies on electrification. Nearly one-quarter said they’re just starting to have such talks, while 12 percent plan to begin the conversation.

This is good news because eVTOLs will not only require system upgrades, they’re also likely to be integrated with transit-oriented development.

For example, these aircraft may transport people from the airport to a local mobility hub, such as Denver’s Union Station, which offers access to the Mile High City’s light rail lines, Amtrak trains, public buses and a free shuttle down the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare so travelers can ride light rail from the airport, then hop a shuttle to a downtown hotel. Union Station is also home to several shops, bars and restaurants as well as onsite hotel accommodations, making this a logical site for a vertiport either on-premises or nearby.

To achieve a “least-regret” investment, utility managers should now be thinking about where to site vertiports and other EV charging hubs. Flight volume and distance will drive energy and infrastructure requirements.

To help with this, utility managers can make use of federal resources, such as the FAA’s National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) report to U.S. Congress for fiscal years 2019 to 2023, which was submitted in compliance with aviation law and identifies all airports and helicopter pads in the national airport system, the roles they serve, and any planned funding to upgrade or maintain them over the next five years.

Load growth opportunities

Also, consider infrastructure designed to serve vertiports to be an investment in load growth overall. For example, Northern Virginia, which houses approximately 166 data centers, is known as the data center capital of the world. The region’s Loudoun County, which claims that 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic passes through its jurisdiction, even calls itself “Data Center Alley.”

Utilities’ ability to attract big power users like data centers and vertiports is, in part, related to the strength of the local grid.

To boost attraction, utilities can also consider adding grid-scale storage facilities near vertiports and other high-demand EV charging infrastructure. Some vertiports will have narrow “peaky” energy profiles.

In areas with plenty of solar penetration that leads to over-generation and low rates during the day, battery storage could be a great way to keep charging costs more stable for vertiports even if demand spikes in the morning and evening as available solar resources come and go.

Making eVTOL charging infrastructure a reality will also involve close collaboration between utility managers, transportation agencies, municipal authorities and other stakeholders who will be instrumental in picking and developing vertiport sites, along with the aircraft companies themselves. The technology is so new that standards are only now being developed. To get in on the ground floor, consider joining organizations within standards-development bodies like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA).

With all the talk about energy, let’s not forget about mission-critical communications requirements. There will most certainly be a telecommunications component, as integrating eVTOLs will require advanced communication networks spanning vehicle-to-ground and vehicle-to-vehicle communications. Look for more announcements to come as big telecom carriers get involved and need reliable power.

Finally, consider the opportunities eVTOLs will bring to utilities themselves. Does your utility rely on a helicopter to monitor assets in remote locations, or to move equipment and people efficiently? Maybe that helicopter could one day be replaced with an eVTOL.

Commercial eVTOLs will be with us sooner than we think, and the opportunity for load growth will be a huge boon for many utilities. Although the idea may seem futuristic, eVTOLs are moving closer to reality every day. Now is the time to start learning about the technology, integrating eVTOLs into system planning efforts, and collaborating with stakeholders. As these aircraft begin to take off, utility’s interests can rise along with them.

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Jamare Bates is Director of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Operations and Federal Project Manager with Black & Veatch's Growth Accelerator. As the Director of UAS Operations, Bates created the program goals and established the company directives for growth and integration of UAS into the greater Urban Air Mobility market.  As part of the Growth Accelerator, he oversaw the development of technology initiatives related to machine learning and artificial intelligence for infrastructure inspections. During his tenure at Black & Veatch, the company has performed industry leading UAS testing and developed technology that has reduced costs across all business lines. Bates is a Professional Engineer and has been in the engineering and construction industry for 17 years.

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