CO2 emissions from all commercial aviation operations in 2018 totaled 918 million metric tons — 2.4% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. Using aviation industry figures, there has been a 32% increase in emissions over the past five years. In the UK, aviation is set to become the biggest source of emissions by 2050. Amidst all the chaos of climate change, the aviation industry has been working hard on reducing carbon emissions for the past few years. Most of these projects are still in the laboratories.
On the 10th of December, one of these laboratory experiments went practical when a neon green and indigo blue seaplane took off from the Fraser River in Richmond, British Columbia right after sunrise as a small crowd of people cheered them. The plane, a 62-year-old propeller aircraft with six passenger seats is a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver prototype which is powered by a Magni500 electric motor. The aircraft was piloted by the CEO of Harbour Air, the first commercial aircraft to go electrical. Previously a two-seater electric plane called e-Genius was flown in the French Alps by engineers at the University of Stuttgart. However, for commercial aviation, this might just be the first.
The e-plane which belongs to Harbour Air is the largest seaplane owner and has 53 planes in its fleets which it plans to make electric. However, that may take some time as Harbour Air still needs to wait for two years until this e-plane is certified. They believe that building an aircraft from scratch would be expensive and since the aim is to cut down on carbon emissions, what would the scrap fuel aircraft be needed for? Instead, retrofitting planes with electric motor engines could solve the problem and wouldn’t be as expensive as well.
Harbour’s electric Beaver can fly for 60 minutes on one charge but it lasted for less than 15 minutes during its first flight. Also, aviation regulations require a flight to have the ability to fly an additional of 30 minutes which makes the total flight time of the Beaver just 30 minutes in which it can cover about 160 kilometers as of now. Where this might be a problem for long-distance commercial flights, Harbour Air will not be affected by this factor as almost all its flights are less than 25 minutes.
However just like every other invention Harbour Air faces certain challenges too, few of them being specific to their fleet of seaplanes. Seaplanes need water bodies to operate from. The friction caused by these water bodies is extremely higher than that caused by concrete runways which in turn results in higher energy consumption from the batteries to gain momentum. Also, the salt in the water corrodes the surfaces of the aircraft.
Shifting from conventional fuels to electricity reduces carbon emissions but it also reduces operational costs drastically. Instead of $300 to $400 of fuel for a 160-kilometer flight, e-planes require just about $10 electricity. Electric motors also have fewer parts which in turn reduces the maintenance costs. The only component holding these e-planes back is the batteries that haven’t progressed as much in technology as generators, motors, power distribution, and controls. Soon we will witness hybrid aircrafts pairing electricity and conventional fuels. The larger aircraft are still far from this revolution.
As of now, there are approximately 170 electrically propelled aircraft programs that haven’t been brought out of the labs. Next summer, Israel based Eviation plans to test its nine-seater all-electric plane called Alice. Siemens, Airbus, and Rolls-Royce Holdings are working together on a hybrid system called the E-Fan X that would electrically power a much larger aircraft. Airbus has been flying electrical since the last few years but they have been restricted to the laboratories. Uber Technologies Inc. is in plans to start an electric flying-taxi service for which it even plans to begin with pilot training programs.
If so many are willing to invest in the electrification of aircraft, the future must have looked bright to them financially as well as environmentally. However, if the aviation industry wants to go electric with their fleets they need to focus on creating an infrastructure suitable for it simultaneously or else we will end up having the technology but airports unequipped to handle the technology. After a decade or so do not be surprised if you look at the runway and find airline operators looking for charging docks for their aircrafts just like you look for one for your phone. Of course, it won’t be that easy though!