May 24, 2022 – It’s May at the Eagle County Airport – midway through the off season. Vail’s lifts stopped spinning a month ago and the summer influx is at least another month off.
Across the road from the rental car lots at Cooley Mesa Detailing, a skeleton crew is servicing the few vehicles that have been returned. They spray-wash the hubs, vacuum the interiors, top up the tanks and finally run the vehicles through the car wash.
But big changes are afoot.
At the Hertz lot across the way, more than 40 brand-new electric vehicles – all Teslas and Polestars – are lined up waiting to be rented. That means a whole new way of doing business for Cooley Mesa. And the changes taking place here present a microcosm of the chicken-and egg complexities that all airport fleet operations will have to work through as they electrify their operations in the coming years.
Cooley Mesa co-owner Chris Baddick watches as his employees drive a couple of electric vehicles past the facility’s high-speed gas pumps, and instead plug them into a pair of newly installed electric charging stations. These are Level 2 chargers, meaning that they deliver enough charge to add 40 or so miles of driving range per hour. After several hours of Level 2 charging, the cars will be moved on two Level 3 fast-chargers near the gas pumps to be topped off.
The setup went live two weeks ago, the culmination of three years of planning. It was a $100,000 investment for Cooley Mesa, which was partially offset by funding from the Colorado Energy Office’s Charge Ahead grant program. CLEER, which serves as the Energy Office’s designated “coach” for 14 counties on the Western Slope, helped Cooley Mesa access the funding.
The transition that’s happening at the Eagle airport is a first in Colorado, and it has few precedents nationwide.
“When Chris first contacted me about this project in 2020, there were next to zero case studies to point to for airport rental fleets in the United States pursuing aggressive electrification,” says CLEER transportation program director Stefan Johnson.
Until recently, he notes, the country’s most visible example of airport rental fleet electrification was a pilot project at Disney World that was limited to plug-in hybrid vehicles and Level 2 chargers. PHEVs have both a regular internal combustion engine and electric powertrain, but can go only 30 or 40 miles in all-electric mode.
“PHEVs are a great and low-risk way to introduce consumers to driving electric,” says Johnson. “But from the beginning, it was obvious that Chris’s ambitions for a fully electric future vastly exceeded what was happening anywhere else in the country.”
Realizing those ambitions was made possible thanks to a unique convergence of factors.
A former professional cyclist, Baddick was new to the business when he and his wife took it over from her father in 2018, and they brought a concern about the climate impacts of rental cars. “We put gas in 42,000 vehicles last year, and that for me was hard to sleep with,” he says.
At the same time, the company’s 25-year lease with Eagle County, which operates the airport and contracts with a single operator to service vehicles for all the car rental agencies there, was coming up for renewal. A new long-term contract was not a sure bet. Baddick pitched the county on a long-term plan to electrify his operations, but he needed a 25-year commitment from the county to make the investment pay off. The contract was renewed in 2019 with the electrification plan stipulated.
Progress was slowed by covid, but by late 2021 orders were placed and the project was under way. And then, last October, Hertz shook up the industry with a dramatic announcement that it was ordering 100,000 Teslas.
Suddenly Baddick’s investment was looking like a very well-placed bet. Few other airports had electric charging in place to handle the EVs that Hertz had ordered, so the Eagle location was able to take delivery of the vehicles just as Cooley Mesa’s charging stations were coming on line.
“They (Hertz’s Eagle airport branch) managed to get the EVs because we had the infrastructure,” Baddick says. “They’ve got all their vehicles and they’re trying to find places they can put them. We have more capacity here even than Dallas has.”
That said, the initial configuration is quite modest. Baddick has big plans for expanding it – including a solar array covering his entire parking lot, with 50 or more drop-down Level 2 charging plugs – but that buildout will take several years.
First, he says, he just needs to see how things go this winter, when the airport is rocking and rolling with up to 26 incoming flights a day. How popular will Hertz’s EVs be with tourists? Will rental customers return their EVs with a full battery, or on empty? How will cold temperatures affect recharging? Will his concept of slow-charging cars first and then topping them up on the fast-chargers prove efficient and cost-effective? Can a car be topped up in the four or five minutes it takes to vacuum the interior?
These are the questions that the entire rental car industry will have to wrestle with, and the operations at the Eagle airport are on the bleeding edge of the transition.
“So that’s the big unknown and that’s why we need Hertz renting the cars for a season in order to figure out exactly how far our charging infrastructure goes.”
In any case, Baddick can’t immediately expand his charging capacity beyond adding up to six more fast-charging plugs. To do more than that, he’ll need Holy Cross Energy, the local electric utility, to install another transformer.
There are other unknowns. How fast will other rental companies convert their fleets to EVs? And what sorts of EVs will they offer? Few expected Hertz’s sudden strategic shift to EVs, and fewer still imagined that Hertz would lead with upmarket Teslas, which have larger battery capacities than the less expensive EVs that would have been more in keeping with the standard-issue models typical of rental fleets.
Baddick believes car manufacturers are only just beginning to consider the many implications of selling electric vehicles to rental companies. Some are traditionally hesitant to do so because it can dilute the resale value of their vehicles, but Baddick notes that rental cars can and should be a key gateway to introducing consumers to EVs.
While the Eagle airport is tiny compared to DIA and other major hubs, it may be that the shift to electric rental fleets has to start in this type of mountain resort community. Rental cars, like rental housing, have big negative impacts, explains Baddick, and the residents of these communities are apt to demand that rental companies minimize their environmental impacts.
Baddick is relieved to see his first few charging stations getting some use, but he’s under no illusions.
“This is just the beginning of the story. This is such a small amount of infrastructure compared to what’s going to be needed in the coming years. But this is a pivotal time in the transition to EVs. Lord knows we need it.”