Electric commercial passenger planes could land at an airport near you within five years.
Electric planes will provide a smoother, quieter flight, with a reduced carbon footprint, and airfares are expected to cost the same as on a comparable gas turbine engine plane.
In its final advice to the government on Aotearoa’s roadmap to reduce carbon emissions, the Climate Change Commission said short-haul aviation, like a trip from Wellington to Nelson, will begin to convert to electric planes from 2030.
Marlborough-based regional airline Sounds Air has even more ambitious plans, with a goal of flying electric passenger planes on regional routes by 2026.
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In September, it signed a letter of intent with Swedish company Heart Aerospace to purchase a 19-seat ES-19 electric plane, once available. The ES-19 is not yet in production.
Sounds Air chairman Rhyan Wardman said the idea to buy electric planes came about two years ago when he saw images of prototype electric planes being designed.
“We realized fairly quickly that the first users of this technology will be small regional airlines like ours,” says Wardman.
The ES-19 planes will each cost around US $ 8 million (NZ $ 11.4 million), slightly more than a comparable gas turbine engine plane, but operating costs will be much lower, says -he.
Besides the fuel savings, there are also huge maintenance savings, he says. For example, an electric motor will only need to be overhauled every 20,000 flight hours, compared to an equivalent gas turbine engine, which must be overhauled every 7,000 hours, he says.
“The economics are so overwhelming that it becomes obvious. “
Sounds Air’s route network stretches from Taupō to Wanaka, with its main hub in Wellington.
It carries around 120,000 passengers per year and has 10 aircraft: six nine-seater Pilatus PC-12s and four 12-seater Cessna Caravans.
The Pilatus have a range of approximately 1,400 kilometers and the Cessnas of approximately 670 kilometers.
The ES-19 will have a range of 400 km.
Wardman says it will take time for the battery life of electric aircraft to improve, but the ES-19 will be ideal for its “short-jump sectors” like Nelson in Wellington, which takes around 30 minutes.
After landing, the aircraft’s battery can be recharged at an airport in 45 minutes before making its next flight.
Which raises an important question: who will pay for the charging infrastructure?
“We wouldn’t be able to take on that burden,” says Wardman.
He says airports served by electric planes will have to cover the cost of the chargers, each worth about $ 500,000, plus installation.
Customer expectations for air travel will change as people become more aware of their carbon footprint, he says.
“Their set of values will require us to provide them with a carbon-free transport solution. “
Wardman says there are plenty of companies around the world developing electric planes, and Sounds Air speaks to a range of developers, but Heart Aerospace is on the forefront.
The next step is to formalize an agreement with a manufacturer, he says.
“It’s a very active space. The decarbonisation of aviation is an ambition for many airlines.
Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran recently said it was possible the national carrier could commercially fly an electric aircraft within three years.
“We’re probably going to have to consider electrifying our domestic fleet or investing in green hydrogen electric planes,” Foran said.
Wardman says he doesn’t expect airfares for regional flights served by electric planes to be more or less expensive.
Electric motors create less vibration, give passengers a smoother, quieter flight, and create less noise pollution for communities surrounding airports, he says.
Wardman says his goal is for Sounds Air to be New Zealand’s leading commercial electric aircraft operator.
But it won’t be New Zealand’s first electric aircraft operator. This honor goes to the Christchurch ElectricAir start-up with its two-seater electric Pipistrel Alpha Electro.
General manager Gary Freedman said he imported the light aircraft last year and flew it for the first time in October.
The plane is suitable for pilot training and that’s what ElectricAir used it for, he says.
“We have the first electric flight school in New Zealand. “
The plane is about 70 percent quieter than fossil fuel equivalents and its battery lasts up to 90 minutes.
It cost about $ 250,000, he says.
“We actually want to buy a few more planes and lease them and sell them to other schools.”
Pilots trained in electric planes will also be trained to fly combustion engine planes, he said.
He expects nine- to 19-seat electric planes to serve regional commercial flights by 2030, but they will not be widespread.
The biggest obstacle to the proliferation of electric planes will be the certification of aviation regulators, he said.
There may be only a few manufacturers in the world that will have produced aircraft approved for commercial flights by 2030, he says.
“It’s a really long and expensive process. But by 2030, a few of the winners would have made it.
New Zealand is well suited for the rapid adoption of electric planes because it has high levels of renewable energy and one of the highest per capita short-haul flight rates in the world, he says.
Airport NZ chief executive Kevin Ward said airports are keen to offer electric planes, but are waiting to find out what operators need in terms of technological requirements.
“They’re very keen to facilitate whatever operators need, and it’s about hearing from them what kind of equipment they need in the field.
The first generation of electric planes will be small and therefore will not replace the volume of seats provided by the turboprop fleets offered by Air New Zealand, he said.
“This is part of the solution and is really welcome, but it needs to be complemented over several years by other solutions such as switching to sustainable aviation fuels so that the existing fleet can continue to operate during a transition to longer term. “
Massey University chief executive te kura rererangi (aviation school) Ashok Poduval said he was looking for ways to incorporate electric planes into flight training in accordance with a commercial licensing standard.
The Pipistrel Alpha Electro belongs to the category of light sport aircraft and can only be used for basic flight training, which means that it does not have the ability to meet the requirements for the issuance of a license to New Zealand professional pilot, he said.
Even when an electric aircraft meets the requirements for full professional flight training, there is a need to develop a supporting infrastructure to make it sustainable, such as high-speed charging facilities and maintenance support services at regional airports. of the country, he said.
Aviation NZ chief executive John Nicholson said the growing discussions of electric planes from New Zealand airlines prompted him to include an article on electric planes for the first time in his next post. annual conference.
“It’s going beyond the hype to see if they’re a realistic option and if so, for what and when,” says Nicholson.
Commercial aviation is studying new propulsion systems, and it may be in training schools where electric planes first spread, he says.
“We will not do what we have done in the past. The future industry will be different from what it is.
The Commission’s view on climate change regarding electric planes on regional routes by 2030 was ‘bold’.
Whether this is realistic or not will depend on the ability of foreign manufacturers to supply commercially available products, he says.
“New Zealand is a technology taker, so we’re going to depend on developing, testing and registering electric planes overseas before we can bring them into New Zealand.”