Connor O'Neil NREL
Colorado Shows Eagerness for Sustainable Aviation 
June 21, 2023
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  • Amid the buzz of alternative aircraft and fuels, the Colorado Division of Aeronautics has been swayed: New aviation technologies are a major opportunity for Coloradans, and it is time to start planning their future. The Colorado Division of Aeronautics launched a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to study the best investments and major policy considerations to carry alternative aviation forward in Colorado.  

    “The Division of Aeronautics is proud to once again be a national pioneer in helping leverage new transportation technology for the benefit of all Coloradans. This collaboration with NREL will help us continue to innovate and help prepare our public-use airport system for the next generation of alternatively powered aircraft,” said Dave Ulane, director of the Colorado Division of Aeronautics. 

    The next generation of aircraft is a clear departure from the past. New aircraft can be battery-powered, autonomous, fueled with hydrogen or sustainable aviation fuel, and have exotic designs. These technologies currently hover at mixed levels of readiness, but their momentum has captured the attention of the Colorado Division of Aeronautics, which is the first U.S. state transit organization to formally study their deployment. Through the 18-month study, informed by a broad stakeholder advisory committee, the Colorado Division of Aeronautics expects to determine how such technologies can make Colorado aviation more accessible, efficient, and sustainable, and to serve as a foundation for other states to approach these new technologies. 

    Study To Synthesize Core Pillars of Sustainable Aviation 

    In 2022, NREL published “A Roadmap Toward a Sustainable Aviation Ecosystem,” which elaborates on three interrelated pillars of fuels, infrastructure, and aircraft. For NREL, the present study will be the first opportunity to synthesize these pillars and apply them to the needs of millions of people across the state of Colorado. NREL will leverage its deep bench of R&D, including its recently expanded efforts to develop sustainable aviation fuels, infrastructure, and aircraft design. This study will combine all of these research areas, and with Colorado leading the way, it could be a model for other states to follow suit. 

    “This study seeks to identify the challenges and opportunities that can come with overhauling the way people move regionally,” said Nicholas Grue, an NREL researcher in energy security and resilience. “NREL will lead the technical analysis by evaluating regional air mobility in coordination with researchers at NASA and Georgia Tech and also facilitate discussions between the Colorado Division of Aeronautics, regional airports, and regulatory and industry stakeholders.” 

    Electric, Aerial Commutes for Coloradans 

    One near-term target for future aviation is to expand opportunities for regional mobility through electrified aircraft, in which flights would cover hundred-mile distances that suit the range of battery-powered planes. This study will reveal how regional air mobility could engage Colorado’s 76 public-use airports to make transit more convenient for all citizens. The airports—from high-traffic Denver International Airport to others located on rugged mountainous areas and open prairies—service communities that could see out-of-town travel become much more accessible. 

    NREL’s research team will analyze how Coloradans currently move throughout the state and how this demand might align with airport capacity. With an eye toward reducing costs, environmental impacts, and transit equity, the researchers will employ route optimization methods to recommend the best investments. Such investments will also be contingent on the supply of power and fuel as well as local regulations. 

    Infrastructure To Accommodate New Flights and Aircraft 

    NREL and Colorado’s pioneering analysis will notably focus on recommendations for updating infrastructure to allow new aviation options. Battery-propelled planes may add significant loads to electrical systems and could require increased power supply, as determined in a previous study evaluating regional air mobility in the mid-Atlantic region. Likewise, sustainable fuels must be sourced intentionally. While fuels could come from nearby feedstocks, new processing and storage infrastructure may be required. The new study will analyze airports on a site-by-site basis to determine the most cost-effective and practical investments. 

    Another important consideration is investing in cybersecurity. NREL has studied the cybersecurity challenges awaiting future airport infrastructure and found that future airports will contain a much greater number of interconnected assets that could pose cyber risks. Between ground vehicles, electric planes, charging stations, and multiple companies connecting to the network, airports may need a renewed validation of cybersecurity. 

    “In a previous study evaluating regional air mobility using electrified aircraft, we identified that in all cases, smaller regional or local airports, especially, would require upgrades to their electrical distribution systems,” Grue said. That study found benefits from the deployment of photovoltaic systems and battery energy storage systems at airports to supplement power delivery while aircraft are recharging their batteries. 

    “Understanding the impacts of how upgraded electrical distribution systems, solar, and battery energy systems can benefit airport operators, airport tenants, and nearby communities will be critical to ensure the opportunities and challenges are well understood,” Grue continued. “The cybersecurity of these potentially high-megawatt power systems will be important to ensure safe, resilient, and secure operations both on the ground and in flight.” 

    Regulations, Incentives, and Local Awareness for Alternative Aviation 

    NREL researchers will also frame their analysis around existing regulations and policies, such as noise constraints, environmental impacts, and proximity to communities. These issues will determine which sites could accommodate flight training for new aircraft, for example, without causing excessive disturbance. Additionally, the study will consider and recommend emerging technical standards and possible state and federal incentives that could financially support this aviation transition. 

    Above all, the forthcoming study is focused on finding the most practical and sensible solutions for all Coloradans, including ways to reduce emissions in the air and on the ground, improve transit, and support the state’s economy. The Colorado Airport System currently supports over 345,000 jobs, and any plans analyzed in this study will also consider the interests and opportunities for workforce development and the communities. 

    “All of this will make air transportation in Colorado more efficient, more equitable, and accessible, with reduced environmental impacts,” Ulane said.