As convenient as it is to fly, air travel is not good for the environment — by some estimates, commercial flights alone are responsible for 3 to 4 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
However, the electrification of air travel is one way to reduce the climate impact of the sector. And although experts say widespread commercial adoption is yet to come, battery-powered aircraft are gaining traction.
Last week, Air Canada became the latest airline to commit to testing the new zero-emissions technology by ordering 30 battery-powered passenger planes from Sweden’s Heart Aerospace. United Airlines and regional operator Mesa Airlines each ordered 100 of the company’s aircraft last summer.
Currently, these electric planes under development are small, seating up to 30 passengers. And they can’t travel far — Heart Aerospace’s plane, powered by more than 5 tons of onboard lithium-ion batteries, can fly just 124 miles on a charge. But with the help of a fuel-powered generator, it can extend its range to nearly 500 miles, the reports Washington Post‘s Pranshu Verma. But even this so-called “hybrid mode” would still produce 50 percent fewer emissions than standard aircraft. These electric planes would also be much quieter, Heart Aerospace executives say.
The Swedish company says its planes could be ready as early as 2028, but the vehicles will have to clear a number of regulatory hurdles before they can fly.
Airlines – and the travel industry at large – have come under fire for their environmental impact. And they respond with ambitious goals and plans. United, for example, has pledged to reduce emissions by 100 percent by 2050 through a combination of cleaner fuel and carbon offsetting, while countries like Denmark and Sweden have set targets to eliminate fossil fuels for domestic flights by the end of this decade use. Cruise lines have also committed to climate protection, companies like Hurtigruten Norway have committed to launching the first emission-free passenger ship by 2030. Trains are getting greener too: the German state of Lower Saxony recently had its first fleet of passenger trains powered entirely by hydrogen.
Airline leaders say they plan to deploy the first batch of electric planes for short, urban commuting routes, including those they had previously phased out because they were too expensive to continue operating.
Many also see the small electric planes as an important first step towards scalable green travel technologies.
“We don’t want to wait for 50-seat, 75-seat, 125-seat airplanes,” said Mike Leskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures Reuters Allison Lampert last year. “We now want to get involved by investing in a company that we believe has a major technological edge, with the hope of working with them over time to bring the size of the aircraft to a wider gauge.” .”
Larger-capacity electric aircraft are also in the pipeline and could take to the skies within the next decade. For example, Los Angeles-based Wright Electric is developing a 186-seat commercial jet with a range of 800 miles that executives say will be available by 2030; The company is also working on a 100-seat electric plane, which is expected to launch in 2027.
However, without major advances in battery technology, building electric planes that can carry hundreds of passengers and fly thousands of miles will be a major engineering challenge. Meanwhile, airlines are also turning to more sustainable fuels, carbon offsets and other innovations to reduce their impact now and in the future when both demand for air travel and emissions are expected to increase (despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the airlines). .
“We must do everything we can to make the aviation of the future environmentally sustainable,” writes Gökçin Çınar, an aerospace engineer at the University of Michigan The conversation.