The Promise and Potential of Electric Aviation

By Etholle Davies, Jr Editor, Green Mobility Magazine

In an era where environmental consciousness is paramount, there’s been a surge in concern regarding the environmental footprint of aviation, particularly regarding noise and pollutant emissions. Air transport has been at the centre of a significant process of ecological transition, intending to minimise the considerable climate impact caused by the sector [1].  This heightened awareness and the enticing promise of financial gains through enhanced energy efficiency have spurred the transportation industry to explore alternative propulsion solutions [2]. The ongoing progress in electric aviation offers a promising avenue for industry stakeholders aiming to fulfil both consumer needs and environmental objectives [3]. The value and necessity of aviation as a mode of transportation within today’s world is undeniable, but it is time for the industry to take responsibility, take a bold step forward and join the electric innovations taking off in other sectors. 

One of the most exciting aspects of electric aviation lies in its potential to alter the way we, as a society, view transportation. The traditional image of aviation, with its billowing clouds of exhaust and a jet engine roar, has long and rightfully been synonymous with negative environmental consequences. Compared to conventional aircraft powered solely by internal combustion, an electric aircraft’s propulsion is either partly or entirely powered by an electric motor, meaning electric aviation has the potential for zero-emission and reduced noise pollution flights [3].Electric aircraft offer a glimpse into a world where flights are not only quieter and more efficient but also, as the price of emissions is set to increase, potentially accessible to a broader demographic.

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) assessed the performance, operational potential, and CO2 mitigation potential of evolutionary electric-powered aircraft that could enter service by 2030 [4]. They modelled three aircraft types, carrying 9, 19, and 90 passengers. The ICCT concluded that electric aircraft could provide a 49% to 88% CO2e emission reduction compared with similar-sized fossil-fuelled aircraft. This figure included the carbon intensity of the battery production process, which accounts for nearly 80% of the emissions from the operation of electric aircraft [4]. Additionally, electric aviation can be 2.1 to 3.2 times more energy efficient when cruising, as electric motors can convert electricity into propulsive force more proficiently than combusting fossil fuels [4]. Whilst the aircraft discussed are small and short-range, the benefits, both environmentally and socially, merit maximum consideration to reach their potential.

Additionally, continued advancements in battery technology are crucial for the feasibility of electric aviation. Doubling battery-specific energy to 500 Wh/kg would significantly enhance the potential of electric aircraft, allowing routes of up to 280 km carrying 90 passengers to be opened up, compared with the nine passengers and 140 km range current technologies allow [4]. It is projected that by 2050, using electric aircraft could potentially reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 3.7 million metric tons annually [4].

It is no easy task to revolutionise an entire industry, but amongst those advocating for such development, it is widely suggested that regional aviation is the best place to start. Regional aviation accounts for 12% of available seat kilometres (ASK) globally and performs about 40% of total departures [5]. As of 2020, 30.6% of flights in Europe were under 500km, and although they represented 4.3% of the sector’s emissions, they are ripe for electrification with existing or nearly existing technology[6]. Smaller aircraft and shorter distances make regional aviation an ideal place to launch new low or zero-emission technologies, enhance travel networks and increase flight frequency. 

The electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOL), powered by electric motors and batteries, provides an excellent example of the benefits of embracing electric aviation. The eVTOL model would reduce the need for large runway infrastructure as it can take off and land in smaller spaces, meaning it can operate in urban and suburban areas [7]. Hence,  companies such as Uber and Joby Aviation are developing eVTOL aircraft for urban air mobility, allowing passengers to travel within cities and reducing traffic congestion and inner-city pollution from road transportation. Additionally, the quieter operation of these aircraft, due to the electric motors and distributed propulsion architecture, makes it less disruptive within urban areas than today’s internal-combustion-powered helicopters. Certainly, eVtol technology is still in the infant stages of development and commercialisation, but the concept hints at the potential for many more advances.

Pioneers in the industry are making strides towards electrifying short-haul flights and urban air mobility, paving the way for an idealistic future where electric planes cross the skies with ease. Indeed, we are on the brink of a new era in aviation. The choice before us is clear: cling to the trusted but outdated designs of the past or embrace the promise of a sustainable future. Electric aviation represents not only an exciting technological marvel but, arguably, a moral and commercial imperative.