Meanwhile, tiny single-passenger electric planes are also getting the green light to fly, with some being used by the military in Europe. Electric seaplanes are being tested and used in Canada. And analysts at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory now predict that 50-70-seat hybrid electric planes could be in service within a decade.
Inside the race to master supersonic airlift
According to manufacturers and industry experts, electric planes could solve major headaches for airlines. They could help companies meet their emission reduction promises and make shorter air travel financially feasible by minimizing fuel and maintenance costs.
But major challenges remain, starting with battery technology, which must advance rapidly to make commercial travel viable. On top of that, planes will need regulatory approvals, and airlines will need to convince passengers that flying thousands of feet in the air on battery power is also safe.
“We haven’t done anything this new with airplanes in forever,” said Gökçin Çınar, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. But “there are definitely a lot of things we still need to work on.”
Globally, commercial aviation accounts for 2.4% of global climate emissions, but that could rise to 22% by 2050 if no changes are made, according to European government data.
Inside the race for a car battery that charges quickly and doesn’t ignite
Anders Forslund, founder and CEO of Heart Aerospace, started his company in 2018 and designed the ES-19, a 19-seat electric aircraft. Last week, the company announced a 30-person aircraft, the ES-30.
According to company officials, the plane can fly up to 124 miles entirely on batteries and emits zero emissions. It is powered by more than 5 tons of lithium-ion batteries stored in its belly, near the landing gear, Forslund said. The plane would recharge in about 30 minutes.
Air Canada has ordered 30 of these planes. United Airlines and Mesa Airlines have placed orders for 100 each.
The ES-30 has a maximum range of almost 500 miles, although any flight over 124 miles requires the assistance of a durable generator using aviation fuel on board. In hybrid mode, the plane would emit carbon emissions at a 50% lower rate than its jet-only counterparts, Forslund said. Cabin noise would be much lower than what commercial passengers are used to, he added.
The plane is expected to have an operating cost per seat similar to that of a 50-seat propeller plane, the company said, which airlines may find financially attractive. Making electric planes economically attractive to airlines is key to achieving widespread adoption and reducing climate emissions, Forslund said.
“If you can only do [the plane] work technically but not commercially,” he said, “then the climate proposal is going to be minor.
Small unmanned plane could land almost anywhere for military intelligence
Experts warn that the skies are unlikely to be filled with all-electric planes anytime soon.
Scientists will have to push lithium-ion technology to unknown limits or manufacture batteries using other chemicals. And the Federal Aviation Administration has not finalized how it will certify electric planes as safe for passenger flight. The FAA is working on creating those regulations, but it’s unclear if they’ll be ready until 2028, Çınar said.
“Usually our industry doesn’t make big changes. You make minimal changes over time,” she said. “So there’s a high risk, but there’s a big reward.”