Nov. 15, 2021, © Leeham News: The momentum and press about electric airplanes is spinning out of control.
Earlier this month, there was an article from one of the most respected news organizations by a reporter who apparently isn’t an aviation reporter that read like a press release from a start-up company. The normal beat reporter would never have been taken in by the hype.
The start-up claims there will be a battery-powered BAe 146 by 2027 with a 460-mile range. Aviation reporter Jason Rabinowitz had a field day on Twitter with the claim.
LNA’s Bjorn Fehrm wrote a long series about the technical challenges of battery-powered electric airplanes. Let’s now look at the market implications.
It seems like scores of start-ups propose battery-power airplanes. While the number, “scores,” is hyperbolic, these start-ups appear in increasing numbers. The media goes crazy. Investors come out of the woodwork. But few start-ups have a realistic understanding of the limits of battery-powered airplanes. Others make unrealistic claims.
This is not about discouraging science, technology, and innovation. But let’s understand that for all the hype, the impact of battery-powered airplanes will be minuscule.
Nearly all the battery-powered proposals revolve around aircraft of 19 or fewer passengers. This, at least, recognizes the limitations of trying to go “big.” Airbus abandoned the BAe 146 concept as impractical. If Airbus can’t figure it out, it’s questionable how a start-up company can.
According to the 20-year forecast (2020-2040) by the Japan Aircraft Development Corp. (JADC), published in June 2021, by 2040, there will only be 762 commercial aircraft seating 19 or fewer passengers in operation. Just 130 of these will be aircraft currently in operation. The other 632 will be new-build airplanes.
(JADC provides the most detailed forecast of any company LNA has seen. The forecast begins with 15 seat aircraft and steps up, with detailed sectors, to the 400 seat category.)
By 2040, JADC see 4,160 turboprops and 38,868 jets in operation. That’s a total of 43,028 airplanes in commercial service.
Do the math. If 100% of the 15-19 seat turboprops became battery-powered, that would be 18% of the total turboprop sector. It’s a good start, but there are practical reasons why there won’t be a complete battery revolution in the 19-set sector.
More to the point, if the 762 19-seat turboprops all became battery-powered by 2040, this represents a mere 1.7% of all airplanes. This isn’t much of an impact. All the hype doesn’t come close to matching the reality.
The hype ignores the reality that batteries aren’t totally clean energy. The manufacturing, charging and disposal processes must be considered. There recently was an article about electric vs gasoline/diesel cars and the debate on this very subject. Those promoting (and reporting on) electric power ignore these issues.
Compare this omission with the recognition long ago by Airbus, Boeing, Embraer, and—when it was in the commercial aviation business—Bombardier. These companies recognized that the total life cycle of the airplanes had to be considered. When airplanes were scrapped, it no longer was acceptable to merely push the broken-up airplane into a landfill. Recycling meant going beyond turning the aluminum into beer cans. The OEMs and the supply chain began making the rest of the airplane with materials that could be recycled. Boeing, when designing the 787 and its new composite structure, was well aware of the challenge of dealing with composite waste.
And then there is the fundamental issue: batteries simply are not as efficient as carbon fuels.
Moving toward net-zero emissions by 2050 requires a multi-pronged approach, of course. This is why the industry is studying batteries, hybrid-electric, hydrogen, hydrogen-hybrid and Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). Each has its technical challenges, which LNA has detailed. The US favors SAF, which requires little in the way of new infrastructure in contrast to, say, hydrogen. But SAF’s major problem is providing enough feedstock to fill the needs.
LNA’s interview with Rick Deurloo of Pratt & Whitney provided a reality check about SAF. He told LNA that a major US airline advised him that it could buy up all the SAF available today and this would supply its fleet of operations for one day. Does anyone really think that there will be a substantial inroad into SAF supplies by 2030 (when Boom claims its SST will run on nothing but SAF), let alone be a significant source for the global commercial aviation fleet by 2050?
Hydrogen has huge production and infrastructure issues to overcome, let alone engine and airplane design requirements. Airbus wants to have a viable commercial hydrogen-powered airplane ready by 2035. It will be a turboprop, probably at 50 seats and perhaps in the 70-seat sector. JADC forecasts there will only be 515 50-seat sector turboprops operating by 2040. Its 70-seat sector forecast sees 1,831 turboprops; 1,206 of these will be new.
Thus, even the most optimistic view of switching to hydrogen doesn’t make much of a dent into clean energy.
These reality checks aren’t meant to suggest, “don’t do it.” But this once more underscores what LNA wrote Oct. 11: the most realistic solution to reduce emissions in the near- to mid-term is advancements in carbon-based engines. Reducing the fuel burn leads to cutting emissions. GE/CFM/Safran and Rolls-Royce are working on entirely new designs the substantially do both. Pratt & Whitney believes the Geared Turbofan can be evolved over the current decade to achieve significantly lower fuel burn and emissions by the next decade.
As much as the Greta Thunbergs of the world want to move faster and eliminate carbon-based engines entirely, it’s not technologically possible any time soon. Substantially better engines will do more, and more quickly, than all the other technologies combined.
Finally, replacing the tens of thousands of airplanes of the “older” generations (A320/A330ceos, A380, 737NGs/757s/767s,777s, and 747s) will take decades. The fuel efficiencies of the A320/A330neos/A350s, 737 MAXes, 787s, and 777X bring more fuel-efficient engines and lower emissions.
Commercial aviation is and has been making progress. But it’s not an overnight evolution.