PORTLAND, OREGON – A five-minute test flight of an all-electric commercial aircraft by Vancouver-based Harbour Air has taken a significant step in the quest to replace aircraft powered by fossil fuels, a mode of transportation increasingly viewed through the prism of global warming.
The neon-green and indigo-blue seaplane took off from the Fraser River in Richmond, British Columbia, as a small crowd cheered from the dock on Tuesday morning. The propeller aircraft, a six-passenger de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver prototype, was powered by a magniX magni500 electric motor and piloted by Harbour Air Chief Executive Officer Greg McDougall.
The test was “far more than the laboratory exercises we’ve seen in the past,” said Robert Mann, the New York-based head of aviation consultancy R.W. Mann & Co. “It’s a real serious, practical test.”
Harbour plans to spend the next two years getting its new plane approved for commercial flight. The carrier, which flies to a dozen destinations on the West Coast, has 53 planes and 450 employees spread between British Columbia and Seattle.
There are about 170 programs on electrically propelled aircraft in development worldwide, up 50 percent since April 2018, according to the consulting firm Roland Berger. Much of that development is for urban air taxis and general aviation. Current electric technology favors these aircraft, which have lower power needs than large commercial aircraft.
Harbour’s electric Beaver can fly about 60 minutes on one charge. But regulators require aircraft that operate under visual flight rules — smaller, noncommercial aircraft — to have the ability to fly 30 additional minutes, which gives Harbour’s new plane a mere 30 minutes of flight time.
The relatively short timeline isn’t a problem for the airline, however, said magniX CEO Roei Ganzarski.
“The majority of Harbour Air’s flights are less than 25 minutes in length,” he said, adding that once the plane is certified, the companies will focus on extending the flight envelope.
Those singing the gospel of electric vehicles often point to decreased operating costs. A Beaver powered by fossil fuel burns anywhere between $300 and $400 worth of fuel during a 100-mile (160-km) flight, said Ganzarski. That same trip in the electric Beaver will cost anywhere from $4 to $10 in electricity, depending on the source, he said.
The electric Beaver is theoretically cheaper to maintain than a combustion engine, too. Electric motors are sealed units, with a minimum of moving parts. Of course, since there has yet to be a commercial electric aircraft maintenance program, there may be unforeseen expenses.
“The cost of being a pioneer is a relevant problem,” said Mann. “We don’t know the actual costs of operating electric airplanes.”
The near term is likely to see a generation of hybrid aircraft, pairing electric and conventional power systems along with smaller all-electric craft. Larger, fully electric aircraft are still about a decade off.
Joby Aviation Inc. is targeting the air-taxi market with a plane that would carry four passengers and travel 150 miles. Uber Technologies Inc. plans to start an electric flying-taxi service, with pilot programs in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne as soon as next year. Israel-based Eviation plans test flights next summer of its all-electric Alice, a nine-passenger plane powered by a smaller version of the magniX motor in Harbour’s Beaver.
“Eviation is excited to congratulate our partner, magniX on its successful test flight of the magni500 propulsion system,” Eviation CEO Omer Bar-Yohay said Tuesday in a statement. “This is a great milestone for electric aviation.”
Siemens AG, Airbus SE and Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC are working on a hybrid system, the E-Fan X, that would power a relatively large aircraft. Airbus is targeting an initial flight of its demonstration aircraft in 2021 and expects to eventually phase in new electric technologies by about 2030.
“Airbus has been flying electric for a couple of years,” Mann said. “But they’ve all been laboratory exercises, as opposed to practical.”
Consulting firm Roland Berger expects the first flight of such commercial aircraft to occur by 2032. Easyjet PLC has partnered with U.S.-based Wright Electric to develop a full-sized battery-powered airliner within a decade for flights of less than two hours.
While manufacturers and airlines alike plan for an electric future, they are still dealing with the politics of the present. Europe’s top airlines on Tuesday attacked European Union plans for a planned kerosene tax, part of the bloc’s sweeping new environmental strategy. Airlines called the duty both unnecessary and unfair, arguing that an investment in sustainable fuels and electric planes would ultimately be more effective in reducing carbon emissions.
For its part, Harbour Air is likely to run into some infrastructure issues in the near term, Mann said, since most major airports lack fast-charging capabilities. Ganzarski said they will rely on existing infrastructure for now but may attempt to build their own renewable infrastructure in the future. The company reported revenue of 69.9 million Canadian dollars ($52.8 million) in 2019.
But there are other challenges. Seaplanes operate from bodies of water rather than land. Unlike meticulously paved and maintained runways, open water is a high-friction surface that requires a far greater amount of energy for a plane to gain enough momentum to take flight.
Salt water is another issue. It is naturally corrosive, eating away at a plane’s surfaces and parts. Finally, the Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly pleasant in December, and cold temperatures have a negative effect on power density and power conversion in batteries.
“If you were thinking of the toughest case for electric flight, it would probably be a seaplane in salt water,” said Mann.