The Dream of a Flying Electric Vehicle Edges Closer

Electrification of cars has seen some policy leaps and bounds in recent weeks, including long-term goals set to move us away from the internal combustion engine (despite industry-lead heads in the sand). However, as more and more transport modes move towards zero (tailpipe) emissions, the aviation sector is going to be the last transport mode we are able to decarbonize.

On the biofuels front, Geneva Airport recently announced it is making progress towards a 1% sustainable aviation fuel goal it set by 2018. That is welcome news, as advocates of 1st and 2nd generation biofuels often push for those resources to be left for aviation instead of ‘wasted’ on passenger cars, for which other solutions already exist. So what is the status of airplanes moving towards zero emissions?

Besides biofuels and options to reduce weight in the skies through various airline and government policies, part of the answer to decarbonizing airplanes might be ground-based. So-called Electronic Green Taxiing System (EGTS) can turn taxiing into a fully electric experienc

Back in 2011, the Israeli airline El Al announced it started working on EGTS, which has since been taken up by other airlines, aiming for anticipated fuel savings in the 2-4% range. EasyJet has recently trialed hydrogen fuel-cell technology on its planes to save fuel and reduce emissions.

The path towards zero-emission flying might be incremental, but it has clearly begun. Boeing just announced that we will see hybrid-electric planes in operation within five years. Sure, it’s not as exciting as a potential “Tesla of the skies”, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle.

Hong Kong International Airport. The future of electric aviation might start on the ground. Credit: Tali Trigg

There are a number of options for reducing the carbon footprint of flying, but then again, it is still cheaper to fly than to take a train in Europe, even including several popular short routes. And until this price dynamic changes, we shouldn’t expect transformational change.

An interesting environmental benefit of electric flying is that because they would be limited (in the medium-term at least) to smaller airports, it might be that a lot of unnecessary hub-and-spoke connections never happen, because the business model for small-to-small airport flying might not make sense for jet-fueled larger planes, but it might work for smaller light-weight electric ones. Conversely, an interesting economic benefit of electric passenger planes is that their reduced noise might allow for more night flights, otherwise prohibited by noise restrictions from nearby communities.

In the next 5-10 years, we can expect some progress on electrification of planes on the ground, some baseline-setting for biofuel shares, and perhaps even some regular solar-powered flights for shorter distances with few passengers. These are promising steps towards a longer time horizon for decarbonizing airplanes, the only issue is of course: do we have enough time?