Electric airplanes get tantalizingly close to commercial breakthrough

Within the aviation industry, employees’ eyes glitter when electric aviation is mentioned. It’s a  topic that is hot and heavily debated and, what only a few years ago felt unlikely, is now becoming a reality, writes WOLE SHADARE


So it looks as though electric air taxis and small planes could arrive in the near future, subject to regulatory approval. In December 2019, the first commercial trip using electric aircraft flew in Vancouver and the Nordic countries. Since then, the strong effort to create a standard for electrifying aviation has continued, but how will this develop in the coming years?

Since the introduction of jet engines over 80 years ago, the aviation industry has undergone spectacular innovation – yet the fundamentals have stayed the same. Today, the aeronautics industry needs to reinvent itself as it faces critical challenges. In the French Alps last summer, a plane set seven new world records.

The two-seater aircraft climbed more than 20,000 feet in under two minutes and reached speeds of 142 miles per hour. It flew nonstop for 300 miles. Perhaps, these numbers don’t sound very impressive, but consider that the aircraft burned no fuel and emitted zero emissions. Instead, the plane used an all-electric motor powered by a single battery.

Electric aircraft in flight

Race to offset atmospheric carbon

In 2019, air travel accounted for 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions, a number that could triple by 2050. While some airlines have started offsetting their contributions to atmospheric carbon, significant cutbacks are still needed. Electric airplanes could provide the scale of transformation required, and many companies are racing to develop them.

Not only would electric propulsion motors eliminate direct carbon emissions, they could reduce fuel costs by up to 90 per cent, maintenance by up to 50 per cent and noise by nearly 70 per cent. Among the companies working on electric flight are Airbus, Ampaire, MagniX and Eviation. All are flight-testing aircraft meant for private, corporate or commuter trips and are seeking certification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

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Cape Air, one of the largest regional airlines, expects to be among the first customers, with plans to buy the Alice nine passenger electric aircraft from Eviation. Cape Air’s CEO, Dan Wolf, has said he is interested not only in the environmental benefits, but also in potential savings on operation costs.


For the foreseeable future, electric planes will be limited in how far they can travel. Today’s best batteries put out far less power by weight than traditional fuels: an energy density of 250 watt-hours per kilogramme versus 12,000 watt-hours per kilogramme for jet fuel.

The batteries required for a given flight are therefore far heavier than standard fuel and take up more space. Approximately half of all flights globally are fewer than 800 kilometers, which is expected to be within the range of battery powered electric aircraft by 2025.


Maria Fiskerud, who leads the Nordic Network for Electric Aviation (NEA) and the Fossil Free Aviation 2045 cluster, is working on the transition to fossil-fuel free aviation, together with the industry.

She said: “It’s important that we do this together – no-one can solve the challenges of aviation ourselves, we have to work together.

In the Nordic region, we gather both airports, airlines and producers of electric aircraft to identify what needs to be put in place in order for us to have an infrastructure for electric aircraft in the Nordic region.”

The project is funded by Nordic Innovation, a sub-section of the Nordic Council of Ministers, which has identified sustainable transport as a strategic area.


Electric aircraft are here with us

Fiskerud continued: “The Nordic countries have the prerequisites to be a pioneer – we created a standard for the GSM network, which we then exported to other countries. We want to create the same infrastructure for electric aviation. Our conditions in the north are special – with ice, rain, snow and cold temperatures – it places higher demands on the planes and infrastructure.”

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Batteries vs jet fuel

So, could electric aircraft help? Well, it depends where you are pinning your hopes. Batteries are a key issue. They’ve got lighter, but they are still too heavy to be a viable energy source for longhaul flights. Electric batteries pack much less energy per unit of weight than jet fuel,” says Bjorn Fehrm, an independent industry aviation expert at Leeham News.

About 40 times less, even if we consider the best batteries available. Electric motors partly compensate for this disadvantage by being more efficient in converting energy into power, but a huge gap remains. The result is that aircraft would need to carry very heavy batteries in order to even approach the performance of current airliners. This option, quite literally, wouldn’t fly.

Electric powered aircraft

Difficult doesn’t mean impossible, though

Major industry players, research organisations and entrepreneurs are working on several possible paths to make commercial electric flying a reality within a few years.

Also, Airbus has announced a global partnership with Air Race E, the world’s first electric airplane races set to launch its inaugural series in 2020. Airbus is the Official Founding Partner of Air Race E.

The competition aims to drive the development and adoption of cleaner, faster, and more technologically advanced electric engines that can be applied to urban air mobility vehicles and, eventually, commercial aircraft.

Air Race E will follow a format similar to the popular Air Race 1 series of the sport known as formula one air racing. Eight electric-powered airplanes will race directly against each other on a tight 5-km circuit, just 10 metres above the ground, and at speeds faster than any land-based motorsport.

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“We want to motivate manufacturers to showcase their technologies across the full spectrum of electric propulsion systems and components.” said Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology Officer of Airbus.

“This partnership enables us to demonstrate our commitment to staying at the leading edge of electric propulsion and developing a new ecosystem.

Challenges for bigger planes

For bigger planes, the challenge grows – airline manufacturer Boeing has already estimated that they are still several decades away from getting a 777-sized plane up in the air with just electricity. The innovative engineering that spurred the efficiency of the modern jet engine makes it difficult to replace with a battery-operated version, according to Dr. Kaushik Rajashekara, electric engineering professor at the University of Houston, who specialises in air transportation.

“The modern jet engine has the highest power density of any machine – this is why jet engines are used in any aircraft,” said Rajashekara. In order to still maximise the benefit of these jet engines, a two-pronged approach to introducing electricity to aviation has emerged.

Short haul, commuter flights for small numbers of passengers are much closer to going electric, especially if battery technologies become somewhat lighter. Smaller all-electric or hybrid regional planes might be available sometime in the 2030s, according to Boeing.

Last line

The airlines say they need to meet their goal of 50 per cent reduced net emissions by 2050, compared with 2005 levels. To achieve this while meeting expected demand growth, electric planes will need to be in the mix

Wole Shadare