Source: Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Pipistrel WATTsUP proof-of-concept aeroplane 2-seat electric trainer
An article from the Robb Report that showed up on my Facebook page describes a new electric plane being developed, the eFlyer 800 from Bye Aerospace, with two wing mounted motors. “The eFlyer 800 is expected to have a range of up to 575 miles, with 45 minutes of reserve battery charge for its motors, and an operational ceiling of 35,000 feet. The plane is projected to have a speedy ascent of up to 3,400 feet per minute, cruise at 322 mph, and reach 368 mph. Bye said that puts it among the top five fastest twin-engine turboprops. More importantly, it will be flown at only one fifth the cost of a comparable aircraft running on fossil fuel, with little noise and zero CO2 emissions.” IT will seat eight people, including one or two pilots. No price was announced.
What does it mean?
I select some articles for this blog because they support or challenge some position I havee regarding technology. I select other articles in order to explore technology and learn more. This article intrigued me for the potential of electric airplanes to combat global climate change.
First, I knew, or, it turns out, I thought I knew, that aviation is a very significant emitter of CO2. One of my favorite web sites, Our World in Data, set me straight here: In 2018 aviation contributed 2.5% of total CO2 emissions, considerably less than I thought. From the same source, another method of calculating aviation’s effect concludes that “aviation accounts for approximately 3.5% of effective radiative forcing: that is, 3.5% of warming.” Finally, Our World in Data concludes that, while not contributing as much to climate change as most people think, aviation gets attention because it will be hard to eliminate that contribution. Decarbonizing aviation will be hard to do.
Second, I have written before about beneficial electrification (here, here, and here), the strategy of converting all energy uses to usage of electricity, which can then be generated from renewable sources. If aviation can be electrified at a reasonable cost, it can be decarbonized.
Finally, if you usually fly out of major airport, you do not know the joy and pleasure (sigh, I am joking) of having almost every airplane trip take at least two flights. Could small electric planes, apart from being luxuries for rich people, make more places accessible by one flight from a regional airport and eliminate the feeling that I am traveling by bus whenever I fly from one major airport to another in a huge airplane?
My interest was certainly piqued; I searched on the Internet and also in academic journals to learn more about the state of electric aircraft.
Two weeks ago, United Airlines announced that it will buy 100 19-seat, 250-mile electric planes from a Swedish company, Heart Aerospace. United has committed to reducing its carbon emissions to zero by 2050. United will use the planes, starting in 2026, to connect small airports (such as Lafayette, IN, from which I flew many times) with Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The purchase is conditional on the plane meeting “safety, business, and operating requirements” of United.
In one of four projects in Electrified Aircraft Propulsion (EAP), NASA is modifying a conventional aircraft to test electric performance in a design with a total of 12 electric motors, two cruise motors and 14 smaller high-lift motors. The four projects all involve smaller aircraft, but in other work, NASA is investigating hybrid and turboelectric systems for larger aircraft. They say “It is believed that the right building blocks are in place to have a viable large-plane EAP configuration tested by 2025 leading to entry into service in 2035 if resources can be harnessed toward pursuing that goal.”
The June 2019 Paris Air Show highlighted several electric planes. The 2021 Air Show has been cancelled so the next event will be in June 2023. The first practical applications of electric aircraft may be in pilot training, where a reduction of fuel costs could accelerate the training. Bye Electronics, the company described in the Robb Report, has smaller planes that could be certified soon for flight training. The Sustainable Aviation Project in Fresno CA is working with Pipistrel on a similar approach. For the wealthy, flying can be a major part of a large personal carbon footprint, so electrification of small luxury aircraft may be a way to reduce carbon emissions and any feelings of carbon guilt, or so-called “flight shame.”
My search turned up other companies working on all electric and hybrid airplanes, but the above sample is, I think, representative. I conclude that, in the short term, hybrid airplanes may reduce carbon emissions from larger planes and smaller all electric planes will develop for niche applications. The longer run is always hazier and I want to hope that all electric aviation will eventually reduce the contribution of aviation to carbon emissions.
What does it mean for you?
If aviation can be electrified, anything can be. The battery demands for flight in terms of size and weight are very rigorous and the batteries developed for those applications will be useful in other places. In a change that still amazes and delights me, the steel mill in my town Pueblo will be powered by solar energy by the end of this year. My first lesson from this exploration is to be alert to opportunities to electrify your organization’s energy use. Beneficial electrification allows energy use to be sourced from renewable technology.
Second, the notion of “flight shame” may be an extreme reaction, but we must all also be alert to opportunities to reduce energy use. After I retired, my driving miles dropped a great deal, but my COVID inspired use of Zoom has reduced my miles even more. Be alert to opportunities to reduce your organization’s energy use. We shouldn’t just electrify all energy use without thinking through how much of that use is necessary.
Where can I learn more?
The Robb Report article on electric planes showed up on my Facebook feed. Their self description: “Robb Report is the leading voice in the global luxury market. Its discerning audience around the world has a shared appreciation and desire for quality, exclusivity, heritage, taste, and fine design. It is the brand the most successful people rely on to discover the ideas, opinions, products, and experiences that will matter most to them. Robb Report is synonymous with affluence, luxury, and the best of the best. Robb Report: Luxury Without Compromise.” I am laughing because that hardy describes me, but on the other hand, maybe it is a useful place to follow new technology. Hmmm. I won’t be blogging about “Jetpack Flying School Is Harder Than It Looks—and a Lot More Fun.”
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