A new generation of electric planes is taking flight

According to some estimates, commercial flights alone are responsible for a third to a fourth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Air travel may be convenient, but it’s not great for the environment.

One way to reduce the sector’s climate impact is to electrify air travel. Despite widely varying opinions about the commercial viability of battery-powered planes, they are starting to gain traction.

 With the recent order of 30 battery-powered passenger aircraft from Sweden-based Heart Aerospace, Air Canada became the latest airline to commit to the new, zero-emission technology. In the summer of last year, United Airlines and Mesa Airlines ordered 100 of the company’s planes.

At the moment, these in-development electric planes can only carry 30 passengers. On a single charge, Heart Aerospace’s plane, powered by more than 5 tons of lithium-ion batteries, can only fly 124 miles. The Washington Post’s Pranshu Verma reports that it can expand its range to nearly 500 miles with the help of a fuel-powered generator. In spite of this, even a hybrid plane would still emit 50 percent fewer greenhouse gases than a standard plane. The electric aircraft would also be much quieter, according to Heart Aerospace executives.

It is estimated that the planes could be ready as early as 2028, but they will need to pass a series of regulatory hurdles before taking to the skies.

The travel industry as a whole has been criticized for its environmental impact. They’re responding by setting ambitious goals and making plans. For example, United, which uses cleaner fuels and carbon offsets to reduce emissions by 100 percent by 2050, and countries like Denmark and Sweden, which stop using fossil fuels for domestic flights by the end of the decade, have set their sights on reducing emissions by 100 percent by 2050. Several cruise lines have also committed to reducing their carbon footprint, with Hurtigruten Norway promising to launch the first zero-emission passenger ship by 2030. Additionally, trains are becoming greener: Lower Saxony recently rolled out its first fleet of hydrogen-powered passenger trains.

It is expected that the airlines will use the first batch of electric aircraft for short, urban commuter routes, including those that had been canceled previously because they were too expensive to maintain.

Also, many consider small electric planes to be a first step toward scalable green travel.

Mike Leskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures, told Reuters’ Allison Lampert last year that the company is not interested in waiting for aircraft with 50 seats, 75 seats, or 125 seats. We hope to invest in a company with a big technological advantage so that, over time, we can work with them to move the aircraft’s size to larger gauges.”

Several large-capacity electric planes are also in development and could be available by the end of this decade. A company based in Los Angeles, Wright Electric, is developing an electric 100-seat plane due out in 2027 that will have an 800-mile range and seat 186 passengers.
Building electric planes that can hold hundreds of passengers and travel thousands of miles will be a big technical challenge without major advances in battery technology. Meanwhile, airlines are also turning to more sustainable fuels, carbon offsets and other innovations to reduce their impact now and in the future (despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic).

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