It will probably take a long time before we see commercial electric airplanes, but that doesn't mean we're not seeing progress.
Pilot Gary Freedman crossed New Zealand’s Cook Strait with a two-seater electric plane owned by the company ElectricAir. It’s the first emission-free plane to make the flight across the strait.
The Cook Strait separates the North and South Islands of New Zealand, extending northwest to southeast from the Tasman Sea to the south Pacific Ocean. It’s a notoriously difficult route by sea because of its treacherous currents and fierce storms, so travel between the North Island and the South Island is mainly done by rail ferry or air.
The strait is named after James Cook, the first European commander to sail through it, in 1770. The first flight over the strait was in 1920 by Captain Euan Dickson, flying for Henry Wigram’s Canterbury Aviation Company. But now it was about time to shake things up, introducing what could be a new way of flying across the islands.
The trip in the electric plane lasted 45 minutes, with a cruising speed of 150 kilometers per hour. While it likely wasn’t much faster than the biplane that Dickson used 101 years ago, the flight cost only $2 in electricity. ElectricAir estimates that the same flight in a similar-sized plane powered by fuel would have used about $100 in plane fuel -- so it's a big chance to not just reduce emissions, but also lower traveling costs.
Celebrating the arrival of the plane in Wellington, New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister James Shaw commented:
“We've always needed aviation, particularly when it comes to our regional access, and electric aviation opens up a lot of these small remote places, because obviously electricity is so much cheaper than aviation fuel.”
Freedman said New Zealand has the highest number of short-haul flights per capital in the world and said he was hopeful that this new technology can create an “electric bridge” between the islands to reduce greenhood gas emissions. The flight coincided with the opening of the COP26 climate change summit in the UK, set to continue during the next two weeks.
A big challenge for the aviation sector
Aviation accounts for about 2.4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. The sector wasn’t included in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and its emissions are rising fast – increasing 32% between 2013 and 2018. A return flight from London to San Francisco, for example, is estimated to emit 5.5 tons of CO2 equivalent per person -- that's almost as much as the average European emits in an entire year.
Airlines grouped under the Air Transport Association have committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, with most emissions reductions coming from sustainable aviation fuel – less polluting than the traditional jet fuel. But it won’t be simple, as there’s a very limited supply of sustainable fuel being produced annually. Furthermore, aviation emissions aren't included in the Paris Agreement, which means there's less external pressure on airlines.
The use of batteries in electric planes has also been considered, but this is still very tricky as it would mean using a battery with massive energy output. Another element to address is energy consumption during flights. While a car can be charged when it runs low on electricity during a ride, an airplane can’t do this during flights over water.
Still, for shorter trips, electric airplanes may be in sight. Much like electric cars seemed far away but progressed quickly in just a decade, electric planes also seemed like a pipe dream, but are now close to reaching commercial price-effectiveness. So, would you ride on an electric plane if given the chance?