• New Zealand’s first electric plane just crossed the Cook Strait.
  • In North America, larger electric commercial planes are being tested.
  • And hundreds of electric air taxis are in development.
  • A hybrid airliner has completed its trial programme.
  • But a leading plane maker says purely electric airliners are still decades away.

New Zealand’s bid to pioneer a carbon-free future for aviation just passed a new milestone as its first electric aircraft flew 80km across the ocean.

The Slovenian-built two-seat Pipistrel Alpha Electro, designed for flight training and pleasure flights flew from Blenheim in the South Island to the capital Wellington on the North Island. The 45 minute flight across the Cook Strait used just US$2 worth of electricity.

Speaking after the record breaking flight, staged to mark the opening day of the COP26 climate summit, Electric Air founder and pilot Gary Freedman, said: “We still had 40% left in the battery. We could have almost flown back again.”

The flight also marked 101 years since the first person flew a conventional aircraft over the body of water that separates the two islands. The electric plane is 90% efficient compared to 25% for conventional petrol aircraft engines.

“In every way, it's nicer than flying a conventional combustion engine plane. It's quieter, it's smoother. It doesn't vibrate. So it's a really pleasant experience. And the controls are exactly the same as a petrol plane,” said Freedman.

And, while the Cook Strait crossing may be an aviation first for New Zealand, it’s part of a growing global trend.

Electric Air airplane preparing to land.
Journey’s end: The Pipstrelle prepares to land after its record breaking over-water flight.
Image: Electric Air

Last December, Seattle-based electric aeroengine maker Magnix claimed the world’s first commercial electric plane flight when a modified seaplane belonging to Canadian commuter airline Harbour Air took to the air, having had its conventional engine replaced with an electric one.

The test lasted just four minutes but Magnix says it will be capable of flying for 30 minutes, with the same amount of power in reserve. Then, in June this year, the company topped that success by flying the biggest commercial electric plane so far, a battery-powered nine-seat Cessna Grand Caravan.

Carbon targets

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the world’s airlines hard, causing a two-thirds drop in the number of people flying. But even before the crisis, the aviation industry was facing pressure from some passengers over its environmental impact.

As far back as 2009, the sector set itself a target of carbon-neutral growth from this year and cutting its emissions – it’s responsible for about 2-3% of global carbon emissions – by half by 2050. A recent survey of flyers found they wanted more action to reduce emissions, with 46% saying they would pay more for carbon-neutral flight.

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 long-haul flights.

For example, an A380 super jumbo would have its range reduced from 15,000 kilometres to just 1,000 kilometres if it was to rely solely on electric power, according to calculations from Duncan Walker, a lecturer in applied aerodynamics at the UK’s Loughborough University.

Industry innovation

At the smaller end of the market, things are looking more optimistic. The two-seat Pipistrel New Zealand is trialling can stay aloft for an hour and still have a 30-minute reserve on a single charge. That’s more than enough for a brief pleasure flight.

New Zealand aviation electric electricity plane Airbus
Airbus’s E-FanX has already completed test flights.
Image: Airbus

Airbus and Rolls-Royce have already completed tests of a hybrid airliner – the E-FanX – with one of its four jet engines replaced by two-megawatt electric motor. Airbus and Boeing are both working on electric planes, although Boeing says a fully electric airliner is still decades away.

Airbus is also working on a series of hydrogen-powered airliners, with which the only emissions would be water vapour. And it’s not ruling out electric power if the batteries can be made light enough.

Boeing’s Next innovation programme, meanwhile, includes smaller vertical-take-off electric planes and more than 100 companies worldwide are working on electric air taxis that use drone-style vertical take off propulsion systems, according to the BBC.

So it looks as though electric air taxis and small planes could arrive in the near future, subject to regulatory approval. But electric airliners may have to wait until battery technology evolves to become lighter and more powerful.

Aviation

What is the World Economic Forum doing to reduce aviation's carbon footprint?

As other sectors proceed to decarbonize, the aviation sector could account for a much higher share of global greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century than its 2%-3% share today.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can reduce the life-cycle carbon footprint of aviation fuel by up to 80%, but they currently make up less than 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption. Enabling a shift from fossil fuels to SAFs will require a significant increase in production, which is a costly investment.

The Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) Coalition is a global initiative driving the transition to sustainable aviation fuels as part of the aviation industry’s ambitious efforts to achieve carbon-neutral flying.

The coalition brings together government leaders, climate experts and CEOs from aviation, energy, finance and other sectors who agree on the urgent need to help the aviation industry reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The coalition aims to advance the commercial scale of viable production of sustainable low-carbon aviation fuels (bio and synthetic) for broad adoption in the industry by 2030. Initiatives include a mechanism for aggregating demand for carbon-neutral flying, a co-investment vehicle and geographically specific value-chain industry blueprints.

Learn more about the Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition's impact and contact us to find out how you can get involved.