• New Zealand just took delivery of its first electric plane.
  • 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 has joined the list of nations exploring a carbon-free future for aviation after taking delivery of its first electric aircraft.

The Slovenian-built two-seater plane will be used for flight training and to give pleasure flights to people who want to experience zero-emission flying. And while it may be a first for New Zealand, it’s part of a growing global trend.

New Zealand aviation electric electricity plane
The cockpit of the Pipistrel Virus SW 121 electric plane.
Image: Pipistrel Aircraft

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.

Race to Zero

The United Nations has launched the Race to Zero, a global campaign to mobilize support from businesses, cities, regions and investors for a zero-carbon recovery and to accelerate action to reduce climate change emissions.

The World Economic Forum is hosting the Race to Zero Dialogues from 10-12 November, bringing business and public sector leaders together in a virtual forum to discuss ways of achieving zero carbon across a range of industries including aviation.

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And the Forum’s Pioneers of Change Summit 2020 from 16-20 November will focus on opportunities to make the word more resilient and sustainable in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.