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Electric Planes Are Inevitable

In a short documentary about airlines, Wendover Productions shares why electric planes are inevitably coming. “It doesn’t currently make sense for airlines to care about climate change,” the narrator of the video said. These are some of the top polluters in the transportation industry, but they basically just get a pass due to a lack of cleaner alternatives.

For airlines, the thing that enables profits is to not care about climate change. Global warming mitigation efforts to adequately make up for airline emissions would cost so much that the airline companies would suffer financially — not something they are willing to do if not forced.

“Carbon doesn’t have a cost for airlines. With few exceptions, emitting more carbon does not cost the airlines anything, but it enables them to make more profit. So, the theoretically correct thing for airlines to do is to emit the amount of carbon that enables them to generate the most profit, regardless of environmental consequences.”

Airlines sometimes do care about climate change for public relations reasons — it looks good to care about the planet, or to pretend to care about the planet if you are convincing enough. Airlines that are seen as “green” or “greener” are usually more desirable to those wanting to fight climate change. It’s the consumers, not the for-profit businesses, who are demanding that the businesses care.

“Net carbon-zero is expensive. Biofuel development is expensive. Sustainable aircraft development is expensive. All more expensive than would make sense if airlines and aircraft developers exclusively cared about PR.”

Why Airlines Are Starting To Take Climate Change Seriously

The narrator explained that airlines and aircraft manufacturers are terrified of regulation. In France, the national assembly passed a bill that would ban short-haul flights on routes that could be traveled in 2½ hours or less by train. Several other European countries have proposed similar bills, and airlines just don’t have good enough arguments against these regulations.

“A move away from the shortest-haul, most replaceable flights will be the start, but it won’t end there.”

Since airlines are one of the more carbon-intensive industries, they will start facing these challenges — unless they become less carbon-intensive. That is, unless they take fighting climate change seriously — see it as something they need to do rather than as an act to simply appear green.

The narrator noted that flying won’t stop and governments won’t restrict it — and that it’s needed. However, governments will put pressure on the industry to reduce its carbon footprint. One way is to have airlines price their carbon footprint into the cost of flying. They can do this by structuring so that greener flying is cheaper flying. A great example of this is hefty carbon taxes.

Airlines Care About Climate Change Because It’s Competitive To Do So

The video pointed out that the airline industry cares because airline companies are pragmatic. Some of the things that have helped this industry so far are biofuels, engine efficiency improvements, and carbon offsetting.

One solution that can really turn flying into an actually sustainable method of transportation is the creation of electric aircraft. These already exist, and more are being developed. As the underlying technologies improve and become cheaper, it will become much more feasible to develop larger passenger and cargo electric aircraft. (So far, we are talking about rather small planes with quite limited range/capabilities.)

“There’s not a whole lot technologically that has or is preventing electric aircraft from existing. What is, is the business case. Batteries are just more expensive and less energy dense than fuel, so with carbon emissions always having been free for airlines, it’s just always made sense to use petroleum-based fuel.”

When you think about that for a moment, you can also see that a high price on carbon would result in a quicker transition to electric aircraft.

The narrator pointed out another challenge: developing aircraft is pretty expensive and getting an aircraft certified for commercial use using a new type of motor is even more so. So, why should an aircraft company go through all of this for something that doesn’t make sense in the business case? The answer to that question is the evolution of the said business case.

New Business Case In Favor Of Clean Energy

For the first time, there’s a new and strong hypothesis of a business case that’s been developed and if it works, it could dramatically shift how commercial aircraft work in generations.

“Electric aircraft inherently have constraints. While much progress has been made in the past decade to bring down the price of batteries, and they now cost 1/10th as much per kilowatt-hour compared to a decade ago, less has been done to increase battery energy density — that is, the amount of electricity stored per pound or kilogram.”

The narrator explained that with EVs, weight doesn’t matter with the primary novel application. It’s easier to increase the range by bringing down costs and add more batteries instead of improving their energy density. For aircraft, it’s much different. The lighter they are, the further they can fly. Adding additional batteries to provide the energy to carry the weight of those batteries is something aircraft need to do in order to fly further.

Another thing explained in the video is that all of the viable electric aircraft are propeller-driven, mainly because of the cost. It’s more costly to develop an electric jet engine. Also, it saves time for short-range flights.

“Airlines need to find a use case for short-range, slow, electric aircraft. Conveniently, it already exists.”

The narrator explained that United Airlines flies to sixteen destinations less than 250 miles or 400 kilometers away from its Denver, Colorado hub. These destinations include Aspen, Montrose, and a few others that are high-yield and high-frequency locations even though they are close to Denver.

These flights also connect tourists to popular ski towns. The narrator spoke of Widerøe in Norway. Out of its 47 destinations, 19 are within 250 miles of Widerøe’s Tromsø hub. Many of these routes are over distances fewer than that. Another airline, Cape Air, doesn’t fly any routes over 250 miles in length.

“The use case for electric aircraft already exists because airlines like Cape Air have already found it, just not yet using electric aircraft. They fly from hubs to small destinations on 9-seat propeller aircraft and partner with mainline airlines to offer connecting itineraries.”

For them, the range constraints plaguing electric aircraft don’t really matter since the routes are short. The speed constraints are also irrelevant in this case. In the case of Cape Air, electric aircraft could easily replace all of its flights and also take over some of Delta, JetBlue, United, and other larger airlines’ routes.

How Cape Air Could Be The Highest Operating-Margin Airline In The World

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Order Re-Selecting Airline is a document for its essential air service subsidized flights from Boston Logan Airport to August and Rockland. Routes such as the smaller, remote communities across the nation are subsidized by the U.S. government. This is to improve connectivity and economic opportunity in these areas.

Since the bids from airlines to operate these routes are public records, the video was able to look at Cape Air’s records and see just how the airline benefited, while making a case for switching to electric airplanes. Cape Air won the bid to operate the route to Rockland, Maine — receiving a subsidy of $2,218,126 for the first year — 2019–2019. That number grew to almost $2.5 million by their fourth year. Rockland has a tourist season but is normally quieter during the winter months. Cape Air’s flights to Rockland vary due to this and they can operate anywhere between three daily round-trip flights in the winter and six in the summer.

Breaking Down The Math

“They’re obligated to operate some 1,365 flights annually representing 12,285 total available passenger seats in each direction. According to Cape Air’s estimates, this route should cost some $3,350,746 a year to operate. They estimated some 15,122 total passengers would fly but publicly available data shows that only 6,733 boarded their planes in Rockland in 2019.

“Assuming it’s roughly the same in the other direction, as one would expect, that means they saw only 13,466 total passengers, representing a 54.8% load factor. Selling tickets for an average of $83, the airline likely, therefore, brought in $1,117,678, which combined with their $2,247,721 year-two subsidy means that they earned some $3,365,399 in revenue. Subtracting their annual cost estimates, that means they only turned $14,653 in profit or $1.09 worth per passenger.

This shows just how tight airlines’ margins can be. But what would they be if they were operated by electric airplanes? Excessive fuel costs would be the first thing to go. Electricity, although not free, has a much lower cost compared to fossil fuel. Electricity can also be converted into capital costs instead of an ongoing cost by investing in solar or wind energy generation, which is something Cape Air has been eyeing.

For Cape Air, its $844,002 in annual fuel costs could be eliminated if it made the switch to electric. Other costs would go up and ownership cost would probably double, at least. Maintenance costs would be much lower than with traditional internal combustion driven aircraft — similar to electric cars.

The three factors together put Cape Air on track for a 40% reduction in operating costs, which is notable.

“On their Rockland route, assuming no change in revenue, that would take $1.09 in per passenger profit and turn it into $100.62 — a number so dramatically different that it doesn’t even sound correct.”

The video has other examples, and its key point is that electric aircraft aren’t just inevitable, but make the most sense by far. The proven business case along with the case study of Cape Air shows a glimpse of the financial benefits airlines would have by making the switch to electric for their shorter routes.

You can watch the full video here.

 
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Written By

is a writer for CleanTechnica and EVObsession. She believes in Tesla's mission and is rooting for sustainbility. #CleanEnergyWillWin Johnna also owns a few shares in $tsla and is holding long term.

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