The British discount airline easyJet made waves over the past week in announcing a partnership with U.S.-based Wright Electric to develop an all-electric commercial airplane that could launch within a decade. According a public statement, such aircraft would help the company “progressively decarbonize and reduce noise from aviation operations.”
According to several sources, including the Guardian, the goal of this partnership is to develop aircraft with a maximum range of the 335 miles – long enough for an easyJet flight departing its Luton Airport hub to reach cities such as Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. Beyond the obvious environmental benefits such as far lower carbon emissions, an all-electric plane would benefit neighboring airport communities by reducing noise at take-off and landing by at least half.
EasyJet touts this strategic plan with Wright Electric as building upon its sustainability agenda, such as its announcement earlier this year that several operational changes have allowed the company to decrease its carbon footprint by a dramatic rate.
A few words of caution, however: the company has a history of making splashy headlines. In February 2016, easyJet’s founder opened a discounted private-label food store in a move to address London’s pricey cost of living and stubbornly high poverty rate. The store closed within two days and never reopened. Days later, the airline announced plans to develop a hybrid airplane powered partly by hydrogen, but the company has since been silent about that project’s development.
Questions about easyJet’s commitment to transforming aircraft technology also arise when the airline oddly announced that in addition to this “collaboration” with Wright Electric, the company was offering free inflight entertainment on passengers’ electronic devices – which in reality would be far more interesting to easyJet’s consumer base than a clean energy technology that may, or may never, power airplanes by 2027. As airlines come under repeated scrutiny for their contribution to climate change, headlines like those of easyJet are one way to reassure stakeholders that they are committed to “sustainability.”
So what gives? Is easyJet really committed to an airplane that would be a huge step in reducing the air travel industry’s carbon emissions? And considering the improvements, yet challenges, electric car brands such as Tesla, GM’s Bolt and the Nissan Leaf have had with range, are fossil fuel-free commercial flights even possible in the near future?
NASA believes so. The agency has been working on a project, LEAPTech, that a redesigned propulsion and airframe, along with electric power, can eventually be applied to more aircraft so that they can become more efficient, safer and of course, fly with a lower environmental impact. For now, experiments have been conducted on the ground, but NASA researchers are hopeful that a demonstration “X-plane” with this technology can start flying within a couple years.
Timothy B. Lee of Ars Technica also suggests that the plans put forth by easyJet and other companies are “more than a fantasy.” Noting that battery technologies are improving at an average rate of 7 percent annually, batteries 10 years from now could hold twice as much energy as they do now. But the huge obstacle the aviation sector faces is that the energy density of jet fuel is far higher than that of batteries, so after take-off, much of the range of an electric airplane would be quickly zapped. Lee suggests at the moment, it is a stretch to suggest an all-electric plan could leapfrog aircraft powered by conventional fuel. A hybrid design, which would also require a complete redesign of commercial jets, would be a more realistic path during the 2020s.
To that end, one startup, Zunum, is designing a hybrid jet that incorporates a revamped propulsion system with a jet fuel-powered turbine to keep a plane flying when battery power diminishes. As it stands, such a plane’s environmental and economic credentials are not shabby, with fuel cost savings ranging 40 to 80 percent in addition to potential noise reduction of 75 percent. Zunum envisions such airplanes to have a range of up to 700 miles, which could also lower the cost of flights to smaller cities.
As Los Angeles Times reporter Samantha Masunaga noted, conventional aircraft are fast and efficient because jet fuel allows for relatively simple forward thrust. In contrast, electric planes fly far too slowly. Furthermore, while battery technology keeps improving, they are still too heavy. The Boeing Dreamliner, for example, weighs about 500,000 pounds. Masunaga quoted an aviation professor and researcher who claimed that if the same plane were all-electric, it would weigh 4.5 million pounds. So even for smaller planes, the bar for more efficient flying is still high.
Finally, there is the huge challenge of sourcing enough lithium and other elements that allows for efficient energy storage – unless alternative technologies can prove to be effective and scalable.
Nevertheless, electric airplanes are well worth the research and development. After all, the sector is well aware of its growing environmental footprint; and the need for less conventional jet fuel could result in less volatile expenses in the long run.
Image credit: Aero Icarus