Will Electric Flying Overtake High-Speed Trains?

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This is part of a series about the EU Parliament and needed policies. The articles in this series are:

  1. The EU Parliament Elections & Why They Matter — EU Renewable Energy Politics, Part 1
  2. European Transition To Renewable Energy Is Impossible Without The EU — EU Renewable Energy Politics, Part 2
  3. Will electric flying overtake high-speed trains (this one)
  4. North Sea long-term vision needed

Will electric flying overtake high-speed trains?

In a recent presentation by Bas Eickhout, leader of the European Green caucus, the state of European high-speed rail (HSR) was compared to Chinese HSR. The train from Beijing to Shanghai takes 4 hours for 1300 km. Looking for the best European journey to compare it with, he found Brussels–Barcelona takes 9 hours for 1300 km.

The conclusion was that Europe needs to do a lot about long-distance travel. Planes pollute just too much. The current thinking is that HSR is the best alternative.

HSR lines need to be straight, flat, and well protected against stray animals and people. They are extremely expensive to build, especially in a densely populated area like Western Europe. To get those high speeds over long distances, they can’t make many stops along the way. They need an infrastructure of feeder lines and hubs to switch trains, making the total travel time not really great for many passengers.

The strength of planes is that they can have a wide and large network of point-to-point connections, making traveling by plane often more convenient than using long-distance trains.

Even the best politicians, and I have the impression Bas Eickhout is among the best, sometimes make the mistake of focusing on the solution and not on the problem. It is not that we need more HSR (we do, but not for those long distances) — the problem is the pollution of flying.

Until recently, flying and the pollution of flying were inseparable. In following the evolution of electric driving, some daring souls have started working on options for electric flying. The first training and private planes are expected to be certified in the next 2 years. The larger private planes, able to fly short to median distances (400–1000 km) are in the prototype phase and are expected a few years later.

Hybrid-electric airplane Zunum AeroImage via Zunum

Before the end of the next decade, the 50- to 70-seaters, able to fly up to 1500 km, are expected to become available. Electric flying does have some benefits. It is silent, making the use of airfields closer to towns less of a problem. The energy does cost a lot less, and they need less maintenance, making flying a lot cheaper. They don’t pollute, removing the greatest problem with current air transport. They don’t need expensive infrastructure between their points of origin and destination, making a wide network of point-to-point connections possible.

Lilium Electric VTOL TaxiImage via Lilium

The main question with electric flying is if the batteries will go up in density soon enough to make it feasible in the coming years. The expectation is that they will. Like for cars, the batteries needed to get below $100/kWh, and for flying, they reportedly need to get over 400Wh/kg of energy density. Most readers of this site will know that the chances of batteries surpassing that threshold are pretty good. Tesla has just bought Maxwell Technologies, which sees a path to 500Wh/kg, and many others expect solid-state batteries to even surpass that in 5–10 years.

One of the impressive slights that Bas Eickhout showed during his climate college was how regulation banning fluorocarbon gases from cooling systems spurred a host of innovations. A kerosene tax and regulations banning night flying and older planes can do the same with development of alternatives to polluting planes.

For some routes and destinations, that will be high-speed rail, for other destinations, electric flying will be the transport method of choice.

I personally am the odd one out. I prefer my private room on wheels. It might take a little longer, but the luxury of having my own room moving with me is worth it. My age and health might have something to do with it. It certainly is not the best solution for most people.

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Maarten Vinkhuyzen

Grumpy old man. The best thing I did with my life was raising two kids. Only finished primary education, but when you don’t go to school, you have lots of time to read. I switched from accounting to software development and ended my career as system integrator and architect. My 2007 boss got two electric Lotus Elise cars to show policymakers the future direction of energy and transportation. And I have been looking to replace my diesel cars with electric vehicles ever since. At the end of 2019 I succeeded, I replaced my Twingo diesel for a Zoe fully electric.

Maarten Vinkhuyzen has 279 posts and counting. See all posts by Maarten Vinkhuyzen