Electric planes could be in the skies by 2028. But big hurdles remain.
At the same time, small single-person electric aircraft have also been given the green light to fly, some of them military use in Europe. Electric seaplanes are being tested and used in Canada. Analysts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory now predict that 50- to 70-seat hybrid-electric aircraft could be in service within a decade.
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Electric aircraft can solve major challenges for airlines, manufacturers and industry experts. They can help companies meet their emissions-reduction commitments by minimizing fuel and maintenance costs, and make shorter aircraft routes economically viable.
But major challenges remain, first and foremost battery technology, which needs to evolve rapidly to make commercial travel viable. Most importantly, the planes need regulatory approval, and airlines need to convince passengers that it’s safe to fly thousands of feet in the air on battery power.
“We’ve never done something so new in an airplane,” said Gökçin Çınar, assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. But “we definitely have a lot of work to do.”
Globally, commercial aviation accounts for 2.4% of the world’s climate emissions, but if no changes are made, this could increase to 22% by 2050, European governments data show.
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Heart Aerospace founder and CEO Anders Forslund started his company in 2018 and designed the ES-19, a 19-seat electric aircraft. Last week, the company announced the launch of a 30-passenger aircraft, the ES-30.
Company officials say the plane can fly 124 miles entirely on batteries and has zero emissions. It is powered by more than 5 tons of lithium-ion batteries stored in the underbelly near the landing gear, Forslund said. The aircraft will charge in approximately 30 minutes.
Air Canada has ordered 30 of these planes. United Airlines and Mesa Airlines have ordered 100 each.
The ES-30 has a maximum range of nearly 500 miles, but any flight beyond 124 miles requires the help of an onboard sustainable aviation fuel generator. In hybrid mode, the plane will have 50 percent less carbon emissions than its pure jet counterpart, Forslund said. He added that cabin noise will be far lower than what commercial passengers are accustomed to.
The company said it expects the plane to have a per-seat operating cost similar to that of a 50-passenger propeller plane, which airlines may find financially attractive. Making electric planes that are economically attractive to airlines is critical to gaining widespread adoption and reducing climate emissions, Forslund said.
“If you can [the plane] Technical but not commercial work,” he said, “then the climate proposal would be secondary. “
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Experts warn that the skies are unlikely to be filled with all-electric planes anytime soon.
Scientists will have to push lithium-ion technology to unknown limits, or use other chemistries to make batteries. The Federal Aviation Administration has yet to finalize how electric planes will be proven safe for passengers to fly. Çınar said the FAA is working on the regulations, but it is unclear whether they will be ready by 2028.
“Typically, our industry doesn’t make big changes. You make small changes over time,” she said. “So the risk is high, but the reward is also high.”