December 13, 2019, ©. Leeham News: The first all-electric commercial aircraft, a Harbor Air DHC-2 Beaver, flew over the Fraser River near Vancouver in the week (Figure 1). It was powered by a magniX electric engine fed with energy from batteries.
Despite this progress, this Corner series is about why the e in our future ePlanes should stand for environment and not electric.
The electric aircraft hype comes from the fact it works for cars. Applying electric propulsion to aviation is seen as the most promising way to get us to an air transport system that has a lower environmental footprint.
On a number of Fridays, I will argue why it doesn’t.
We have lost our way in our search for a lower carbon footprint air transport system by heading down the electric lane. I will argue why it’s not the best route as it’s not the route that leads to tangible results any time soon, despite huge investments.
It’s a route with high technical hurdles and it involves a lot of unknown unknowns on the risk side. We are still at the first peak in the Gartner hype curve (Figure 2) and we need to pass the trough of disillusionment before we make real progress. And this will take at least a decade.
There are lower hanging fruits in the tree but the electric hype stops us from seeing them and from directing our efforts more intelligently.
With the above provocative statements done, it’s time to cut to the chase. Why should e in ePlane stand for environment and not electric?
It becomes more and more undeniable we have a global warming problem caused by us burning the globes fossil fuels created millions of years ago. This creates CO2 gas which warms our planet when it aggregates in the atmosphere.
The math is simple. A unit of burned fuel creates a unit of CO2 gas.
We don’t have to bother with the factor between these units. The key is, it’s proportional. So if we want to reduce the CO2 load on our atmosphere we need to burn less fossil fuel.
This is our target. And then the e shall stand for environment as our target is less environmental load on our planet.
But then electric is the route! We can load the aircraft with energy produced by a grid system which does not burn fossil fuel!
No, it’s not.
If our focus is e as in environmental footprint there are better routes to the target. Less investment intensive, less fraught with disappointments, and less risky. If our chase is about e as in environment, electric is just one of our tools and not a hot one at that. We will spend several Fridays going through why. I can give a hint of where we are heading.
Our CO2 loading of the atmosphere comes one to one from our aircraft’s fuel consumption. The way to significantly lower the fuel consumption of our airliners does not go via electric hybrids or full electric aircraft.
We describe better routes in the next Corners.