Electric aviation, poised to revolutionise the aviation industry, holds promise for mitigating the environmental impact of air travel and enhancing the efficiency of short and mid-range flights. Backed by the European Parliament and various regulatory bodies, the electrification of the aviation sector is progressing at a rapid pace, offering a viable pathway to a more sustainable future.
A. The Emergence of Electric Aviation
Emerging in response to the escalating environmental crisis, electric aviation is a pioneering approach to air travel that aims to significantly reduce CO2 emissions and noise pollution while enhancing efficiency. This transformative technology, which is currently in its nascent stages, has already demonstrated its potential in various test flights across the European Union.
1. The Need for Action
Aviation, although accounting for a relatively small share of global emissions, has been identified as one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonise. According to data from the European Parliament, emissions from international aviation had surged by 146% by 2019 compared to 1990, and this figure is projected to increase as demand for air travel continues to rise.
2. The Potential of Electric Aviation
The electric aviation sector is burgeoning, with several advanced concepts of battery-electric and hybrid aircraft already under development. These innovative aircraft, which are capable of eliminating CO2 emissions along with greenhouse gases and water vapour during flight operations, are heralding a new era of sustainable air travel.
3. The Focus on Short and Mid-Range Flights
Electric aviation is particularly well-suited to short and mid-range flights, which account for a significant proportion of aviation emissions. By replacing traditional jet fuel-powered flights with electric alternatives on these routes, the aviation sector could make substantial strides towards reducing its environmental footprint.
B. The Benefits of Electric Aviation
The adoption of electric aviation could usher in a host of benefits, ranging from enhanced efficiency and connectivity to environmental sustainability.
1. Regional Connectivity
Electric aviation could play a pivotal role in boosting regional connectivity, transforming regional airports into innovation hubs and facilitating faster, more convenient air travel. This could be particularly beneficial for more isolated and sparsely populated areas, including island regions, which could gain improved access to public services and job opportunities.
2. Economic Viability
The electrification of regional aviation could potentially render previously abandoned routes economically viable, stimulating regional development and attracting new investment.
3. Noise and Emission Reduction
Electric aircraft generate minimal operational and noise pollution, making them an environmentally friendly option for communities located near airports.
4. Job Creation
The transition to electric aviation could lead to the creation of new jobs and skills, offering a major market opportunity that could catalyse growth in the entire transportation sector in Europe.
C. Investing in the Future of Aviation
The development and commercialisation of electric aviation require robust support at both the national and EU level. Public procurement has proven to be an effective tool for promoting the electrification of the industry without disrupting the market, and this strategy should be leveraged to accelerate progress.
1. The Role of Public Procurement
Public procurement has emerged as a powerful instrument for facilitating the transition to electric aviation. By pooling the necessary investment, every electrified route could contribute to a reduction in aviation’s climate and environmental footprint.
2. The Need for Cooperation
EU companies active in the electrification of the aviation sector should collaborate more closely with national and EU authorities to develop an integrated technical roadmap and joint research programmes. This is crucial for maintaining Europe’s industrial leadership and competitiveness on the global stage.
3. Infrastructure Development
The advent of electric aviation will necessitate significant infrastructure investments. Existing large airports, for instance, could potentially consume 5-10 times more electricity by 2050 than they currently do, underscoring the need for substantial investment in on-airport infrastructure.
D. Technological Challenges and Solutions
Despite its immense potential, the development of electric aviation is not without challenges. These primarily relate to the stringent requirements for batteries and the need for continuous improvements in battery technology and aircraft design.
1. Battery Technology
Electric aircraft operations impose stringent requirements on batteries, necessitating them to be light, compact, quickly rechargeable, and capable of providing the high power needed for take-off and climb segments. Ongoing advancements in battery technology, complemented by more energy-efficient aircraft designs, could significantly enhance the environmental performance of electric aviation.
2. Cross-Industry Research and Development
Technological trends within different transport sectors are converging, paving the way for fruitful cross-industry research and development partnerships. These collaborations, spanning the air and automotive industries, the air and shipping sectors, and the air and railways industries, could facilitate the development of next-generation batteries, alternative fuels, and electrical distribution systems, among other breakthroughs.
E. Action in the Framework of the EU
The EU, recognising the pivotal role of the aeronautics industry in driving economic activity and competitiveness, has been proactive in supporting and developing this sector. This support has been manifested in various forms, including the provision of funding for the Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking (CAJU), a major research and innovation programme aimed at transforming aviation towards a sustainable future.
1. The Role of the European Parliament
The European Parliament has been instrumental in the promotion of electric aviation, advocating for proactive policies to support and develop the aeronautics industry. The Parliament has also called on the Commission to ensure that existing EU regulations do not counteract each other or impede the industry’s decarbonisation and electrification initiatives.
2. The Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking (CAJU)
The CAJU is a public-private partnership under the Horizon Europe programme that is committed to driving aviation research and innovation. However, the budget allocated to the CAJU under the Horizon Europe programme is currently insufficient to meet the scale of its ambition, highlighting the need for increased funding.
3. The Need for a European Strategy
Given the strategic importance of battery technology, it is imperative for the EU to invest in research and development of next-generation solid-state batteries. A European strategy for a coordinated approach to the development, certification, and deployment of the new generation of aircraft could help raise awareness of the benefits of electric aviation among European citizens and stimulate private and public investment.
The future of electric aviation holds immense promise. As the aviation industry rebounds from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the energy crisis precipitated by the war in Ukraine, it has a unique opportunity to prioritise innovative technological solutions that can enhance environmental sustainability. The advent of short and mid-range electric travel offers a transformative market, boasting a network of highly efficient regional transportation with positive environmental and logistical benefits. By harnessing the potential of electric aviation, many believe that we can chart a course towards a more sustainable and efficient future for air travel.