The aviation industry has long been among the top emitters of greenhouse gases. Now electric airplanes have begun to fly.
How much difference can we expect them to make?
Some boosters want us to believe that electric aviation will solve all of aviation’s environmental problems. But one persistent theme in the environmental movement has long been skepticism over the ability of technology to improve environmental conditions. So some skeptics want us to believe that it’s not really a big deal.
Two recent electric airplane announcements
In July 2021, Eviation Aircraft Ltd. announced the inaugural flight of an electric commuter aircraft that it intends to introduce into commercial service in 2024. It calls the aircraft the Alice. It will have a traditional fixed-wing design and be able to carry nine passengers for 650 miles. That should make it competitive with the various light aircraft that already serve that market.
The design makes use of current battery technology. It does not depend on any future improvements to it. The company says it already has 150 orders.
Eviation was founded in Seattle but recently moved its headquarters to Israel so it could take advantage of the aviation expertise there.
Rolls-Royce announced the first flight of its all-electric “Spirit of Innovation” airplane in September 2021. It claimed the plane had the most power-dense battery system ever assembled for an airplane. The plane flew from Boscombe Down in the UK for about 15 minutes. It can reach speeds of more than 300 MPH.
Rolls-Royce is working on electric versions of both vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and standard fixed-wing aircraft for the commuter market. It plans to have an electric commuter plane ready for market in 2026.
An article in Eco Friend has described 15 other electric airplanes.
Reporting on the Rolls-Royce flight, Treehugger was less than impressed. “The trouble is, of course, that the biggest climate-related challenge in terms of aviation is long-distance commercial travel. It’s hard to see how offering an electric and low carbon option for a new and inherently inefficient application like flying taxis gets us nearer to that goal.”
A brief timeline of the early history of aviation
Consider the following timeline of the history of aviation:
- 1903: The Wright Brothers made the first airplane flights. Of the four on the first day, the longest lasted 59 seconds. With such short flights, most newspapers didn’t consider the feat newsworthy.
- 1909: French aviator Louis Bierot flew across the English Channel. The Wrights sold the first military airplane to the US Army.
- 1911: An Italian pilot conducted a one-hour reconnaissance flight during the Italo-Turkish War—the first use of an airplane in war. The Italians dropped four grenades on Turkish positions nine days later.
- 1914: The first commercial air service operated between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida for four months. The plane had room for the pilot and one passenger.
- 1918: The US Postal Service inaugurated air mail service.
- 1919: KLM started operating. It wasn’t the first commercial airline company, but it’s the first one that made a successful long-term business of passenger service.
- 1923: The first non-stop transcontinental flight took place.
- 1926: The US government began to regulate the airline industry.
In just over 20 years from the first time anyone succeeded in getting a heavier-than-air flight off the ground, airplanes were in commercial, military, and mail service. Enough flights were taking place in the US that Congress had to authorize an agency to draw up regulations to license pilots, design routes, and begin to develop air traffic control.
The likely near future of electric aviation
If commercial air travel began eleven years after the very first flight, who’s to say that long-distance commercial air travel won’t start before, say, 2035?
Too many environmental pundits lack historical perspective, understanding of technological innovation, patience, and imagination. The entire history of the human race can be described in terms of some kind of technological innovation having unintended consequences that drive more technological innovation.
Why should anything think electrifying air travel will be any different? Sooner or later, commercial electric airplanes will be here. They won’t necessarily use batteries. They may use any number of other technologies now under development. (Green hydrogen will probably compete with electric airplanes in weaning the industry from fossil fuels.) And when commercial electric aviation comes, it will come with problems no one now can anticipate.
The Treehugger article further suggests that we need to find ways to fly less, not just fly more efficiently. It illustrates another persistent problem with environmental ideology: the notion that environmental advocates can and ought to determine what choices are available to everyone else.
All the virtual meetings brought about by the COVID pandemic have shown business and academia that maybe large in-person conferences are no longer necessary. Reducing physical meetings certainly reduces air travel.
On the other hand, the rising middle class in many so-called third world countries means that more people will want to participate in the lifestyle that the West has long enjoyed. That means they will want to fly more. Who has any right to tell them they can’t?
So we can easily identify some trends to reduce air travel and some to increase it. We must also realize that trends we can’t now identify will play an important role. And environmental activists will not have much control over them.