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Aug 29, 2019

Plug-in planes are coming, faster than ever

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Hybrid and all-electric planes will probably be a thing within five years.

Swedish eco-activist teen Greta Thunberg made headlines by sailing to New York for the United Nations Climate Action Summit rather than arrive by carbon-spewing flight. Cleaner flying may be an option in the not-too-distant future, though. Electric-powered planes, long disregarded as impractical because batteries couldn’t match the power of liquid fuel, are starting to take off. Flying from JFK to Sweden on electricity may not happen next year, but a large percentage of flights are regional hops and are within the range of newer, better batteries.

“Marketplace Tech’s” Jed Kim spoke with Graham Warwick, executive editor of Aviation Week. They talked about the latest iterations of electric planes and the potential for electric flight to reinvigorate regional air travel. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Graham Warwick: NASA started talking about electric propulsion probably back in about 2010 and pretty much got laughed out of the room. Now, within five years of that, we were seeing some serious developments, and now we’ve got aircraft flying. It’s been a very rapid so far.

Jed Kim: If they were laughed out of the room, you said, at first, what was the change?

Warwick: It doesn’t look practical when you first look at it, because we know that batteries can’t store enough energy to fly an airplane. So, when you first start talking about electric, people just say it’s not possible. Gasoline or kerosene, which is what airplanes use today, is like the perfect fuel. It’s very dense, and it carries a lot of energy. And aircrafts are very sensitive to weight. So liquid fuel, as we call it, is perfect for aircraft, and you look at batteries, they just don’t carry anywhere near enough energy. But what’s happened is batteries have got better, which is undoubtedly true. But also, people have begun to change the way they think about airplanes, they’ve been able to come up with designs that are practical.

Kim: A couple months ago, we had the Paris Air Show, and there were electric models on display. How many were there?

Warwick: It depends on how you count them. We’re in an unusual time for aviation in that traditionally, aviation has not been a very fruitful market for entrepreneurs and startups. It takes a lot of money and a long time to develop an airplane. So that’s never been a market that has brought the Silicon Valley type of thinking. But we’re in an era where that is happening. So, because the electric technology is so readily available, and it’s not like a jet engine, it’s very specialized. It’s off-the-shelf batteries, it’s off-the-shelf motors, things like that. We have a lot of people who are entering the market — it’s in the hundreds. Just the air taxi ones that would operate inside cities, probably 200 different projects on the way around the world. Now, how many of those are serious? A handful, but it’s a lot of activity.

Kim: What market forces have driven the development of electric planes so far?

Warwick: Principally, two: emissions, which is big in Europe, and operating cost, which is big in the U.S. If you were to go back into the ’80s or ’70s, people were used to flying from small cities to big cities in little airplanes, propeller-driven airplanes. But over time, those regional airplanes got bigger and bigger, and the airlines operating them got swallowed up by the big airlines. So the actual level of air service that you get if you’re in a small city is worse now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, because that regional airline thing doesn’t exist the same way that it did back then. And the reason is that the aircraft are expensive to operate. So people are pursuing electric aircraft to see if you can get the cost of operating aircraft down low enough. You could then start having the ticket price low enough to get people out of the cars and out of their buses and into airplanes.

Kim: How long until these kinds of planes are commercially viable?

Warwick: We’ve got to get the rules in place to certify these things. For the regulators like the [Federal Aviation Administration] to be able to say that these aircraft are safe, we must have the regulations. And those are being worked as we speak. There’s already an initial set of regulations in Europe that companies can design to to prove their aircraft is safe. And the FAA here in the U.S. is working along a similar process. They have several companies that are already in the certification of their aircraft. So they’re providing information to the FAA to prove they’re safe. There are prototypes flying today that will probably be some experimental flights in cities and in short-range flights next year. And people are talking about sort of commercial service, certainly by the middle of the next decade, maybe as early as 2023. But certainly by 2025, you will see some level of commercial service with these aircrafts.

Kim: And how long until your average person like me can expect to fly on an electric plane?

Because of the pressure on emissions from aviation … we are now hearing manufacturers like Airbus seriously talk about at least introducing some degree of electric hybridization.

Graham Warwick

Warwick: Most people who fly in what we consider as large aircraft — like a 737 or an Airbus A320, which got about 100, 150, 180 people on them, or if you fly across the Atlantic, you fly on a Boeing 787 or an Airbus 350, or even a 747, which are carrying 200 or 300 people now — they’re farther away. Electric technology is going to take a lot of development before it can begin to power aircraft of that size. But because of the pressure on emissions from aviation, particularly in Europe, we are now hearing manufacturers like Airbus seriously talk about at least introducing some degree of electric hybridization in their next generation of aircraft. So they could have aircraft in development in the early part of the next decade that are at least partially electrically powered. There are ways — a bit like your hybrid car — it’s the way you introduce this technology. The first one was the Toyota Prius, and it didn’t take long before the all-electric Tesla came along. But early on, the technology wasn’t quite ready to make them all electric, so there was a hybrid electric. Well, that’s kind of the same with big airplanes. If and when they start, it will be a hybridized solution. So they are talking about beginning development of big airplanes with some degree of hybridization in the early years of the next decade.

Related links: more insight from Jed Kim

Want to get a look at one of the electric planes that turned heads at the Paris Air Show? The World Economic Forum’s site has a profile of a plane from Israeli company Eviation. It seats nine and can travel close to 650 miles. It’s called Alice.

Electric flight is still developing, which means there are hiccups. The Verge has a story on a demo flight that crashed into a Norwegian lake recently (the two people on that plane survived unharmed). It comes as the country aims to make all domestic flights electric by 2040. I asked Warwick how much of a setback the crash was, and he pointed out that plenty of loss-of-power incidents happen with fossil fuel-powered flights.

I mentioned how Swedes are down on flights. Turns out they’re super down on flying. They’ve coined a new word, “flygskam,” which translates to “flying shame.” Mother Nature Network says there’s a complementary word that means “train brag.” Anyway, flygskam is real, so much so, it’s causing anxiety for airlines. At an industry summit in Seoul, the head of the International Air Transport Association said, “Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread.” I’m certainly planning to say flygskam at least 20 more times today.

Finally, going from electric planes to electric cars, CNBC reports that Tesla is now offering its own car insurance. You must be a Tesla owner, and for now, live in California. But the company said it’ll expand to other states. The company said its plans could cost as much as 30% less than competitors’ plans.

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