Guest Review: Electric Planes Are Coming | News, Sports, Jobs
Electric planes are expanding rapidly in the United States, Germany, France, Slovenia, Japan, China and elsewhere, creating excitement not seen since the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.
Start-ups are rushing to develop electric planes, backed by big companies. PBS’s “Nova” made a fascinating documentary about it, “The Great Electric Plane Race.”
Airbus is developing several different electric passenger planes for mid-range markets. United Airlines has agreed to buy up to 200 planes for regional use from Swedish electric plane maker Heart Aerospace. Norway will only allow electric planes for domestic flights from 2040.
Hawaiian Airlines has partnered with a Boston company named Regent to acquire electric planes that can carry 100 passengers each for inter-island travel.
KLM has ordered eight electric trainers from Denver’s Bye Aerospace, which also has 732 purchasing depots for its eight-seat electric regional business jet.
Beta Technologies in Vermont has piloted an electric plane with a range of 133 miles, prompting United Parcel Service to order 10 for 2024.
Toyota is investing heavily in Joby Aviation of Santa Cruz, Calif., determined to be among the first to provide electric flying taxis that can take off and land vertically. Unsurprisingly, Uber has also partnered with Joby Aviation for the same purpose.
Races are organized to test the capabilities of this new technology. A 1,000-mile race from Omaha, Nebraska, to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, will take place in May 2023 over four days.
ADVANTAGES OF ELECTRIC AIRCRAFT
Electric planes could solve many serious problems caused by planes burning fossil fuels.
First, global pollution. Most contemporary airplanes run on a fossil fuel similar to kerosene, and airplanes are the source of around 2.4% of the global greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. This number will get worse as air travel is now increasing rapidly.
In addition to this global impact, airplanes cause serious local problems. Research has long shown that areas up to 10 miles from busy airports are heavily polluted with ultrafine particles hazardous to the health of local residents. This adds to the pollution that many western cities suffer from summer fires and winter inversions.
Another problem electric planes could reduce is noise. The Canadian government reports that “jet aircraft are one of the most disturbing sources of noise in our environment”. The effects of this noise are particularly harmful for children living near airports.
Fuel costs are a growing concern for companies using fossil fuel aircraft. Internal combustion engines (ICE) use only about 25% of the energy contained in their increasingly expensive fuel, wasting 75% of it. In contrast, electric aircraft engines consume about 90% of the energy supplied to them.
Finally, electric motors, whether in airplanes or other vehicles, are much easier to maintain. A US government report recently confirmed that electric cars are cheaper to maintain than ICE vehicles. The same goes for electric planes, whose maintenance costs are perhaps only a fifth of what traditional planes require.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT ON ELECTRIC AIRCRAFT
None of the above negates the significant challenges faced by electric aircraft developers. Among these challenges for electric planes are much less range and total power than that provided for an ICE plane by a full tank of fossil fuel. Electric motors are incredibly efficient, but the batteries to power them are heavy and don’t store comparable amounts of energy.
Key areas for electric aircraft developers include lighter and more powerful batteries, hydrogen-powered electricity-generating fuel cells, hybrid systems using ICE motors to assist batteries or fuel cells, radically different aerodynamic designs to increase efficiency, and vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) that could replace helicopters.
Discussion of the above is beyond the scope of this report, but incredible progress is being made in all five areas. This has led to huge investments and the commitment of large companies to buy electric planes in the next few years.
AN ELECTRIC PLANE FOR UTAH?
As mentioned above, regional flights will be among the first applications of electric aircraft.
Salt Lake City International Airport offers many regional flights under 375 miles, including to Las Vegas, Denver, and Boise.
Utah County has four regional airports. Provo’s new $55 billion airport is Utah’s second-busiest airport, hosting two commercial airlines connecting many western cities.
Electric planes could reduce pollution and noise for nearby residents and Utah Lake’s abundant wildlife.
In many places, airports are installing infrastructure for electric aircraft and ground support vehicles.
Perhaps Utah airport managers should think about what they could do to accommodate electric planes, and power companies could consider special rates to encourage their use.
Don Jarvis is a Provo environmental volunteer and a retired BYU professor.