Will electric flying be the future?

31 augustus 2020

There is no doubt that, like any other, the aviation industry needs to look at ways to become more sustainable. Partly because of obvious reasons – if the industry does not change, the damage done to the environment will soon be irreversible – and partly because of goals and terms set by governments.

Other industries are looking to electrifying, with road transportation being the main industry to embrace it. Electric cars are becoming more and more the norm, and we also see vans and trucks becoming electric. And as much as people embrace electric driving, there is still a huge issue: the infrastructure is not ready for it. Sure, in the Netherlands it is easy to find a (power) charging point for your electric vehicle. But in other countries around Europe, that is not always the case. Planning a route to your destination based on the charging points, is not something people tend to do. Once the infrastructure is more up to speed, people might be more willing to switch to electric cars.

Electric power in aviation

The aviation industry is looking at electrifying as well. But there, technology is even a much bigger problem. It starts with the batteries needed for an airplane to become electric. As technology stands today, it is simply not possible to perform a long-haul route on electric power. Batteries are not powerful enough, not to mention the extra weight it will add to aircraft. Extra weight of batteries means either less cargo or fewer passengers. Estimates by different manufacturers say that at the moment, an electric aircraft should be able to carry 20 passengers. That might be feasible on short-haul flights. That is one of the reasons why the Norwegian government has said that from 2040, al domestic flights need to be electric powered. But on long haul flights, it would cost too much.

So, is electric power not an option at all for the aviation industry? No, that is not the case. Airports are more than able to electrify themselves. Especially when it comes to ground handling equipment. More and more we see examples of ground handling vehicles becoming electric and experiments with electric taxiing are promising. These developments are now also being mandated by governments, in order to reach the goals set in the European Green Deal.

What can the industry do?

Electrifying airports and ground support equipment is definitely something the industry must actively pursue, as well as other electric options to make airports CO2-neutral, investing in sustainable energy, reducing the use of fossil fuels and making people aware. As far as fully electric flying for more than 20 passengers is concerned, we feel that this is something that will not be happening soon. Instead, we think that aircraft manufacturers should look at reducing fuel consumption and reducing emissions and most of all: hybrid solutions. A small example is the Dutch Electric Aviation Centre, which is testing a hybrid twin-prop Cessna Skymaster.

There is still a lot that the aviation industry can do to become more sustainable. What the best solution will be, depends on a lot of factors. Both on technological ones as well as on the will and ambition of all stakeholders involved. Luckily, we see the ambition is there.

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