In December 2019, Vancouver’s Harbour Air conducted a 15-minute test flight of the world’s first all-electric commuter airplane, the eBeaver.
The eBeaver is a harbinger of the electric aviation industry that will someday replace today’s fossil-fuel-powered commercial airliners.
The 39-year-old Harbour Air, North America’s biggest seaplane operator, is a carbon-neutral carrier serving some 18 destinations. And Its first eBeaver, a retrofitted 62-year-old, six-passenger de Havilland Beaver, is already a legend for its role in opening Canada’s Far North and other remote regions.
Harbour founder and CEO Greg McDougall is set on perfecting the eBeaver for commercial service by 2022, and then retrofitting Harbour’s entire fleet of more than 40 planes serving the B.C. and the U.S. Northwest into zero-emission aircraft.
Nasa, meanwhile, is developing all-electric aircraft for passenger and military use with a range of about 160 km., roughly the distance from Los Angeles to San Diego, and carrying as many as 100 passengers.
Ultimately, the quest of electric-aircraft developers worldwide is to have their planes operate most of the world’s flights of under 800 km. Those short-haul flights account for almost half the industry total. That’s the “sweet spot” for short-range all-electric planes, which in turn promise to be the first and biggest zero-emission aircraft fleet.
The entire industry’s sense of urgency on reducing its carbon footprint has grown steadily in recent years.
At its 2019 pre-pandemic peak, when the global airline industry carried 4.3 billion passengers, aviation accounted for just over 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions. That seemingly small number roughly equates with the emissions of South America.
Worldwide air travel is expected to approximately 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) forecasts that aviation’s share of global emissions will rise to about 3.5 per cent by 2030.
Governments are pressuring the aviation industry to emerge from the pandemic with a smaller carbon footprint, especially governments in Canada, the U.S., Germany, and other countries that have provided pandemic financial assistance to the industry.
That pressure, which includes calls for rapid improvement from U.S. President Joe Biden and his European counterparts could result in formal marching orders to the industry at the next major climate-crisis summit, or COP26, which convenes late this month in Glasgow.
As you would imagine, getting from a retrofitted eBeaver seaplane to an all-electric global airplane fleet will take several decades. But in adopting varied methods to get there, some of the breakthroughs in reducing aviation emissions will take effect much sooner.
Pioneers like Harbour Air are retrofitting existing planes that were long ago certified by Transport Canada, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulators. Those aircraft are likely to win the fastest regulatory recertification.
Other pioneers, such as Israel’s Eviation, are developing all-electric planes from scratch. Those purpose-built planes are designed around the aircraft’s all-important battery, to achieve the goals of reducing the plane’s weight and increasing its energy efficiency. But those planes take longer to certify, since they are all-new designs.
Still there are developers working with hybrid approaches, a sort of flying Prius, the landmark Toyota passenger car that first popularized semi-electric vehicles starting in 1997.
The Electric Eel, by Los Angeles firm Ampaire, is an FAA-certified 1973 Cessna. Ampaire replaced one of the Cessna’s two engines with an electric one. It hopes for an expedited certification of its plane by the FAA.
Several factors have slowed the pace of aviation electrification compared with that of motorized vehicles.
Among them is the vast superiority of traditional jet fuel over existing batteries in providing power.
Today’s best batteries provide about 250 watt-hours of energy per kilogram of weight. Jet fuel provides about 12,000 watt-hours of energy per kilogram of weight. An electric-powered 737 would require a battery about the same size as the plane itself.
Then again, electric engines are lighter and smaller than conventional aircraft engines. So, the biggest challenge, as we’ve learned from electric vehicles, is to devise smaller yet more powerful batteries.
Engineers are striving to upgrade aviation batteries to provide 800 watt-hours of energy per kilogram of weight. That would make short-haul commercial passenger planes viable.
Weight is a more critical aspect of aircraft design than of autos. You’ve noticed that from the care that airline agents take in weighing every piece of your luggage.
And it will be a while before the regulators who certify aircraft for service get accustomed to electric-aircraft technology. It departs from traditional plane design more than electric vehicles do from familiar car design.
Finally, there are no agreed-on standards for e-planes.
Some airlines, looking for a quick fix, are experimenting with hydrogen-based fuels and so-called sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Each would enable airlines to merely retrofit their existing fleets. Last month, more than 50 major airlines and two Big Oil firms committed to that approach.
Several governments have seized on SAF as a kind of silver bullet. Norway and Sweden mandate its use as an additive to traditional jet fuel, and SAF mandates are under consideration in the U.K. and the European Union. The U.S. is looking at subsidies to encourage more SAF production, which is currently concentrated in just three refineries worldwide.
But the highly touted SAF, a biofuel with potential to cut emissions by about 80 per cent compared to conventional jet fuel, is as much as eight times more expensive to produce than fossil-based fuels. It is manufactured in tiny quantities with no certainty of sufficient state or private-sector investment to sufficiently ramp up production.
And SAF has environmental problems of its own. Scaling up production of SAF, whose feedstock is largely edible materials, could threaten food security and contribute to deforestation.
The bottom line, though, is that a global aviation industry that long ignored calls that it reduce its carbon footprint now appears impatient for climate-crisis solutions. Most of the major aircraft manufacturers, including Boeing Co. and Airbus SE, and several Big Tech firms are now experimenting with electric aircraft.
But that “sweet spot” is perhaps worthy of the most attention.
More robust batteries that can power quieter, cleaner regional aircraft that serve passengers on the short-haul flights that account for almost half the world’s air travel are within reach. Now that we can measure that technological progress in years rather than decades, we can be more certain that the aviation industry will, after all, become part of the solution to climate crisis.