As electric cars become increasingly common on the road and EV charging stations pop up across the country, the question of when electric propulsion will come to commercial aviation is natural. To date, research in hybrid-electric aviation and electric aviation has, for the most part, been limited to small-scale projects, such as single-passenger quadcopter drones and on-demand flying taxis. The reality is that today, the technology simply isn’t ready. Batteries today are too expensive and carry only about 2% as much energy per unit of weight as does jet fuel. Other key components such as electric motors have not yet caught up to aviation standards of power output, weight, and other performance metrics. Yet, as more and more people fly every year, we need electric propulsion in our planes more than ever in order to curb the growing environmental footprint of flying. And what better plane to start with than the single-aisle jet — commercial aviation’s most commonly flown airliner?
Single-Aisle: The King of Commercial Aviation
The commercial aviation market is dominated by flights on single-aisle aircraft. Primarily served by Boeing’s 737 series and Airbus’s A320 series planes, this class is projected by Boeing to account for 74% of all aircraft deliveries over the next 20 years (over 32,000 planes, a nearly $4 trillion cumulative market). Such massive demand, coupled with steady growth in passenger traffic and new airport construction, will yield more and more 737- and A320-type planes in the air at any given time.
The geographical distribution of flights is changing as well. With the rise of India, China, and the Southeast Asia region as increasingly powerful and enticing markets for airlines, the Asia-Pacific region will see some of the highest growth rates of short-haul commercial air traffic across the globe. Southeast Asia in particular, with its more than 640 million people and 11 sovereign states crammed into an area half the size of the United States (more than twice the population density of Europe), is a gold mine for the single-aisle jet market. The region’s rapidly emerging middle class, adding 50 million new consumers by 2022, represents an exploding consumer base for short-haul flights and air freight. All told, the Asia-Pacific region will see deliveries of nearly 14,000 single-aisle jets in the next 20 years (a 250% growth in single-aisle fleet size) and will be home to 40% of the world’s commercial single-aisle fleet by 2038.
Commercial Aviation’s Emissions are Skyrocketing
Although aviation accounts for just 2 percent of global emissions annually, this share is growing rapidly and is harder to address than many other emission sources given significant barriers in technology and cost efficiency. With the massive coming growth in air travel, emissions and environmental impact remain big concerns. In fact, today, air travel is arguably one of the worst individual actions one can take from an emissions perspective. A single round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco equates to roughly 0.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide per passenger, (or around 5.5% of a typical American’s annual carbon dioxide emissions). To make matters worse, studies show that a quarter of emissions from aircraft operations are produced during the landing and take-off (LTO) cycles, with most of that coming from taxiing. In the coming years, especially in geographies such as Asia-Pacific where only 17 airports and 17 new runways have been planned through 2030, air traffic will quickly outpace airport capacity growth and likely lead to much longer LTO cycles and thus significantly increased emissions.
On a related note, high-altitude commercial aircraft emissions also cause a different but potentially even more significant environmental threat — contrail warming. A 2011 study found that contrail clouds, formed when aircraft exhaust particles combine with water vapor, have a larger net atmospheric warming effect than have the carbon dioxide emissions from planes throughout the entire history of aviation. To make matters worse, industry efforts to utilize biofuels for cleaner propulsion can’t avoid this issue, as a recent study has shown that burning biofuels could actually lead to a net increase in contrail warming. However, given that contrails are formed at cruising altitudes and since electrified aircraft, even hybrid-electric planes, primarily run on battery power when cruising, electrification is the best solution to combat this problem.
Wright is developing a new generation of ultra-efficient, hybrid-electric single-aisle commercial airliners to compete head-to-head with Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’ A320 models. These incumbents, which have been around since 1966 and 1986, respectively, have comprised an incredibly profitable duopoly in the single-aisle market that has disincentivized Boeing and Airbus from making significant changes in design or building electrified alternatives of their own. Wright’s first plane, the Wright One, will introduce much-needed leaps in innovation to this market by achieving up to a 40% reduction in fuel burn, 50% lower noise, and a 25% decrease in required takeoff distance. The company’s uniquely ambitious goal of developing a single-aisle jet as its first commercial product puts it in a league above its startup peers, which are aiming to commercialize less widely used regional jets and smaller planes before attempting a single-aisle airliner. With interest from companies such as easyJet, the world’s largest airline operator of Airbus’ A320 line of planes, the Wright One is poised to fly some of the world’s most widely flown routes.
The (W)Right Team
Wright’s deeply experienced team of former Boeing, Airbus, and Cessna executives represents the culmination of more than 100 years of world-class aerospace engineering excellence. With flight test facilities in Ohio, an engineering team in Spain, a top-notch airframe designer in Seattle, and strategic risk-sharing partnerships with BAE Systems, a global leader in aerospace engineering, and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, the world’s largest fully accredited aviation and aerospace university, Wright has access to some of the world’s top minds in aviation.
Through Wright, the company’s fearless leader, Jeff Engler, is pursuing his dream of cleaner planes. A serial entrepreneur who founded MatchLend, an alternative credit scoring technology to improve default predictions, and Podimetrics, a medical device company treating diabetic foot ulcers, Jeff has always gone after big problems with bold solutions. Wright is perhaps his most ambitious yet, and Clean Energy Trust is excited to support his vision of bringing hybrid-electric airliners to commercial aviation.
The Path to Clean Aviation
We’re excited about the potential for electrified aviation and we think Wright is poised to lead the way towards cleaner skies. Wright’s groundbreaking electric propulsion technology, laser focus on the single-aisle market, and world-class team are exactly what the commercial aviation industry needs to take on the coming demand boom and drastically reduce the environmental footprint of air travel.
We expect to see cost reduction in alternative fuels and increasing regulations. But given fuel costs already account for the largest portion of airline operating expenses at nearly a quarter and alternative fuel prices are likely to remain higher, airlines will still seek ways to reduce their fuel consumption. The Wright One’s savings from fuel burn reductions and decreased exposure to fuel price volatility alone are compelling enough for airlines to make the switch to hybrid.
Though electrified flights remain years away, we’ve put our support behind Wright’s vastly experienced, ambitious team and eagerly await the Wright One’s maiden flight.
This post is part of a series on CET’s recent investments. Click here for the previous post in this series.