In December 2019, Vancouver’s Harbor Air conducted a 15-minute test flight of the world’s first fully electric commuter plane, the eBeaver.
The eBeaver is a harbinger of the electric aviation industry that will one day replace today’s fossil-fueled commercial airliners.
Harbor Air, 39, the largest seaplane operator in North America, is a carbon neutral carrier serving some 18 destinations. And her first eBeaver, a 62-year-old refitted six-passenger de Havilland Beaver, is already a legend for her role in opening up Canada’s Far North and other remote areas.
Harbor Founder and CEO Greg McDougall is determined to perfect the eBeaver for commercial service by 2022, then transform Harbor’s entire fleet of more than 40 aircraft serving British Columbia and the North -Western United States in zero emission planes.
NASA, meanwhile, is developing all-electric planes for passengers and the military with a range of around 160 km, roughly the distance from Los Angeles to San Diego, and carrying up to 100 passengers.
Ultimately, the quest for electric aircraft developers around the world is to see their planes perform most of the world’s flights under 800 km. These short-haul flights represent almost half of the industry total. It’s the “sweet spot” for all-electric, short-range aircraft, which in turn promise to be the world’s first and largest fleet of zero-emission aircraft.
The industry-wide sense of urgency to reduce its carbon footprint has grown steadily in recent years.
At its peak before the 2019 pandemic, when the global airline industry carried 4.3 billion passengers, aviation accounted for just over 2.5% of global carbon emissions. This apparently low number roughly equates to South America’s emissions.
Global air travel is expected to double to 8.2 billion passengers by 2037, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the airlines trade group. And the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that aviation’s share of global emissions will reach around 3.5% by 2030.
Governments are pushing the aviation industry to emerge from the pandemic with a lower carbon footprint, especially the governments of Canada, the United States, Germany and other countries that have provided financial assistance in the event of a pandemic to industry.
This pressure, which includes calls for rapid improvement from US President Joe Biden and his European counterparts, could result in formal market orders to industry at the next major climate crisis summit, or COP26, to be held in the end of the month in Glasgow.
As you can imagine, going from a modernized eBeaver seaplane to a global fleet of fully electric aircraft will take several decades. But by adopting a variety of methods to achieve this, some of the breakthroughs in reducing aviation emissions will take effect much sooner.
Pioneers like Harbor Air are modernizing existing aircraft that had long been certified by Transport Canada, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulatory bodies. These aircraft are likely to obtain the fastest regulatory recertification.
Other pioneers, like Israel Eviation, are developing all-electric planes from scratch. These specially designed aircraft are designed around the aircraft’s very large battery, to achieve the goals of reducing aircraft weight and increasing fuel efficiency. But these planes take longer to certify because they are brand new designs.
There are still developers working with hybrid approaches, a sort of flying Prius, the iconic Toyota passenger car that popularized semi-electric vehicles for the first time in 1997.
The Electric Eel, from the Los Angeles firm Ampaire, is a 1973 Cessna certified by the FAA. Ampaire replaced one of the Cessna’s two engines with an electric motor. She hopes for accelerated certification of her aircraft by the FAA.
Several factors have slowed the pace of electrification of aviation relative to that of motor vehicles.
Among them is the great superiority of traditional jet fuel over existing batteries in terms of energy supply.
The best batteries today provide around 250 watt hours of energy per kilogram of weight. Jet fuel provides approximately 12,000 watt-hours of energy per kilogram of weight. An electrically powered 737 would require a battery roughly the same size as the aircraft itself.
Again, electric motors are lighter and smaller than conventional aircraft engines. So the biggest challenge, as we’ve learned from electric vehicles, is designing smaller but more powerful batteries.
Engineers strive to upgrade aviation batteries to deliver 800 watt-hours of energy per kilogram of weight. This would make short-haul commercial aircraft viable.
Weight is a more critical aspect of the design of airplanes than of automobiles. You have noticed this thanks to the care airline agents take to weigh every piece of your baggage.
And it will be some time before regulators who certify planes for service get used to electric aircraft technology. It departs more from the traditional design of airplanes than electric vehicles do from the familiar design of cars.
Finally, there are no agreed standards for electric aircraft.
Some airlines, looking for a quick fix, are experimenting with hydrogen-based fuels and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Each would allow airlines to simply modernize their existing fleets. Last month, more than 50 major airlines and two major oil companies embarked on this approach.
Several governments have seized on SAF as a sort of miracle solution. Norway and Sweden are mandating its use as an additive to traditional jet fuel, and SAF mandates are under consideration in the UK and EU. The United States is considering subsidies to encourage greater production of SAF, which is currently concentrated in only three refineries worldwide.
But the much-vaunted SAF, a biofuel with the potential to reduce emissions by around 80% compared to conventional jet fuel, is up to eight times more expensive to produce than fossil fuels. It is manufactured in minute quantities without the certainty of sufficient investment from the state or the private sector to sufficiently increase production.
And SAF has its own environmental issues. The increased production of SAF, the raw material of which is largely edible, could threaten food security and contribute to deforestation.
The bottom line, however, is that a global aviation industry that has long ignored calls to reduce its carbon footprint now seems eager to find solutions to the climate crisis. Most of the major aircraft manufacturers, including Boeing Co. and Airbus SE, and several major tech companies are now experimenting with electric planes.
But this “sweet spot” is perhaps worthy of the greatest attention.
More robust batteries that can power quieter, cleaner regional jets that serve passengers on the short-haul flights that account for nearly half of the world’s air travel are within reach. Now that we can measure this technological progress in years rather than decades, we can be more certain that the aviation industry will, after all, be part of the solution to the climate crisis.