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Electric planes to take off

December 12, 2018

Aviation has tended to fly under the radar as far as taking responsibility for cutting greenhouse gas emissions goes. But Norway, a Slovenian manufacturer and an American entrepreneur plan to change that.

Flying with electric planes
Image: Airbus

Over the next 36 months, the aviation industry as we know it will begin a dramatic shift toward electric aviation. That's if Roei Ganzarski — who's been dubbed the Elon Musk of the nascent electric plane industry — is to be believed. Not all do.

Ganzarski, the chief executive officer of MagniX, an electric propulsion startup based in Seattle, says his company is focusing on air transportation in the 100 to 1,000-mile (160 to 1,600-kilometer) range, which accounts for 50 to 70 percent of all commercial flights.

"We believe that in the next five years 'middle mile' air travel will start a resurgence with flights carrying 9-15 people up to 1,000 miles — roughly San Francisco to Denver, London to Paris, or Zurich to Frankfurt — completed by electric planes," Ganzarski told DW. 

"And all-electric propulsion creates zero emissions, meaning no CO2 and no greenhouse gasses, and will also be a significantly lower cost to operate," Ganzarski added, calculating a cost reduction per flight hour of 50 percent compared to the same aircraft powered by a turbine or piston. 

The MagniX CEO expects all-electric planes to initially go into service by 2022. However, for that to happen "battery technology and regulatory certification and approvals will need to improve," he noted. 

But not all open skies

Aviation accounts for about 4 percent of global emissions and critics have accused the industry of doing little to rein that in, despite warnings from environment groups and governments. 

Lucy Gilliam from non-profit organization Transport & Environment in Brussels told DW that electric planes would cut so-called contrails by 50 percent — that is air pollution at an altitude which is not treated as a CO2 emission and is not included in the Paris targets. 

"Electric planes don't require combustion so you could eliminate non-CO2 effects of flying. But you can't replace jumbo jets with electric aircraft," she said. 

Gilliam also thinks that commercial airlines would be using such planes "as a Get Out of Jail Free card" to avoid doing anything now to reduce their carbon footprints. "We think that only 6 to 10 percent of commercial airline flights will be electric by 2050," she said, adding that battery technology is the key to enabling an accelerated process. 

Read more: Opinion: Solar Impulse 2 - time to sober up after the celebration

According to Gilliam, German industrial giant Siemens is looking into making electric planes with 12 to 15 seats, and Heathrow — London's main airport — is offering free landing for commercial e-planes. Norway has also mandated that all domestic flights be electric by 2040. Jon Georg Dale, Norway's minister of transportation, told DW that the government in Oslo was looking forward to the arrival of electric planes.

Taking off: Electric gliders

"E-planes have zero emissions and also emit much less noise than regular airplanes and are expected to be able to land and take off on short runways. Several rural Norwegian airports have quite short runways, and the introduction of e-planes will facilitate the up-keeping of traffic on these airports," Dale said in an email.

The first passenger flights are expected to begin in Norway by 2025.

Becoming cost effective

E-planes are already cost effective, Taj Boscarol of Pipestrel, a Slovenian company that makes electric planes, told DW. 

Boscarol says that over the last 10 years, there has been an improvement of between 15-20 percent in terms of battery capacity and a fall in their cost. "That has made it feasible to place electric aircraft on the market."

Read more: Electric flight finds its wings at Slovenian startup with lightweight Alpha Electro

Pipestrel was the first company in the world to serially produce and sell a 2-seat fully electric aircraft, the Taurus Electro, in 2007. 

"Of course, electric propulsion is not suitable for all aircraft types yet … and it is unrealistic to expect that battery technology will improve fast enough to be able to fly a distance of more than 1,000 kilometers before 2035," Boscarol says. 

Nevertheless, the Pipestrel representative strongly believes that electric propulsion has significant advantages over conventional aircraft already today, so that it can play an increasing role in the huge segment of short-distance aviation.

Head shot of a man (Jo Harper) with grey hair and brown eyes
Jo Harper Journalist and author specializing in Poland