Electrifying commercial aviation: How close are we?

From its inception, the growth and profitability of commercial aviation has relied heavily on environmentally damaging fossil fuels. As the impact of these fuels on the environment worsens, aviation will need to evolve and find another viable means to fuel its continued growth. Electric aircraft is one solution currently being explored by the industry.  The question is – how close are we to developing technology capable powering commercial aircraft with MTOWs of up to 650 tonnes purely on electricity, and is this something that can realistically be achieved?


Summary:

  • From its inception, the growth and profitability of commercial aviation has relied heavily on environmentally damaging fossil fuels, but electric power is becoming one of many serious and sustainable alternatives;
  • A big question remains… how close are we to developing technology capable powering commercial aircraft with MTOWs of up to 650 tonnes purely on electricity;
  • Norwegian trial of battery powered Alpha Electro G2 aircraft, demonstrating electric aircraft operations are indeed a possibility and country has 2025 target to operate its first commercial electric flight;
  • But battery performance currently presents the greatest hurdle for OEMs. Electric batteries are significantly heavier than jet fuel, limiting the range electric aircraft can operate.

It appears Norway is working towards a solution. Recently, Norwegian transport minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen and Avinor Dag Falk-Petersen piloted a battery powered Alpha Electro G2 aircraft, demonstrating electric aircraft operations are indeed a possibility. The flight underlines the country’s ambitious target to operate its first commercial electric flight by 2025, and completely electrify Norwegian domestic aviation by 2040.

Avinor CEO Dag Falk-Petersen believes “electric aircraft are set to significantly improve the environmental consequences of the aviation industry”. He also noted electric aircraft could also be “cheaper to fly as operating costs for several aircraft models will be considerably lowered”. Avinor has further confirmed it has no intentions to charge landing fees for electric powered aircraft.

The promise of environmentally friendly aircraft with lower operating costs is music to the ears of Norway’s regional carrier Wideroe. The carrier believes the electrification of sub 50 seater aircraft will help revive profits on short haul routes, which are currently operated using “ageing technology” developed in the 1970s. Wideroe CEO Stein Nilsen stated: “I really believe that we will have a major technology shift in the turboprop segment, and I think, in fact, there could be a possibility for flying all-electric…in the timeframe around 2030”.

Norwegian CEO Bjørn Kjos on the other hand is critical of the project, believing airliners powered by electric engines are unlikely to fly anytime in the near future. Mr Kjos said: “In a time frame of 30 to 50 years, there may be electric aircraft, but today, this technology does not exist as an alternative”.

Mr Kjos’ less optimistic view on the development of electric aircraft brings to mind questions regarding the technological barriers aircraft manufacturers will need to overcome to launch electric aircraft operations by 2025. Battery performance currently presents the greatest hurdle for OEMs.

Electric batteries are significantly heavier than jet fuel, limiting the range electric aircraft can operate. According to Airbus aviation and environment expert Rainer von Wrede, an A320 powered by the best batteries available on the market, without any passengers or fuel, would only by able to fly for 10 minutes.  Airbus general manager for electrification Glenn Llewellyn is optimistic though, noting “battery technology is probably the technology in the world which has the most investment. So it will evolve”.

Luckily for Wideroe and Avinor, a number of projects are underway to address battery limitations and make electric aviation a tangible reality. Notable developments include:

  • Seattle based Zunum Aero plans to launch a 12 seat hybrid electric aircraft in partnership with Boeing and JetSuite by 2022;
  • Airbus is collaborating with Siemens and Rolls-Royce to develop a hybrid-electric commercial aircraft demonstrator, dubbed the E-Fan X, by 2020;
  • Embraer is working with Bell Helicopter and Uber to operate flying taxis by 2024;
  • easyJet is working with startup company Wright Electric to launch an electric 180 seat aircraft by 2027.

Without doubt, aviation is by far one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. By 2020, global aviation emissions are expected to be approximately 70% higher compared to 2005, and ICAO predicts they could grow a further 300% to 700% by 2050. It is clear the industry needs to evolve – it simply can’t move forward in its current form. It is paramount the industry begins to invest in alternatives to fossil fuels.

Electric aviation is certainly a promising solution but will require significant investment and government support to move forward. Hopefully for Norway and the wider aviation industry projects to develop electric aircraft will bear fruit, and the dream of fossil free commercial aircraft operations will soon be realised.