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electric airplanes aircraft zero emission United Airlines
United Airlines launches big new plan for zero emission electric airplanes (photo courtesy of United Airlines).

Aviation

Electric Airplanes For The Masses, Space Flight For Billionaires

United Airlines cuts to the rapid decarbonization mustard: tree planting offsets good, zero emission electric airplanes gooder.

The Intertubes have been ablaze with news of rich people flying into space, which is interesting. And now back to Earth, where emissions from the aviation industry are helping to fry the planet to a crisp, and some people are actually trying to prevent it from getting worse. In the latest news on that score, United Airlines has just inked an electric airplane deal that could bring zero emission flight to the masses, just in the nick of time.

Zero Emission Electric Airplanes For Everyone

Before you get your hopes up, the United Airlines deal is not expected to deliver whole fleets of electric airplanes before the end of the decade. However, it does represent a significant kickstart for aircraft electrification.

The problem is that airplanes are not like cars, so teasing enough juice out of a battery to get airborne for hundreds of miles poses a weight problem. Nevertheless, R&D work is continuing apace. Part of the focus is on electric airplanes for relatively short flights, because the fuel consumed at takeoff and landing accounts for proportionally more emissions than cruising speed. In other words, you get more bang for your decarbonization buck if you focus on electrifying short-distance air travel.

That’s where United Airlines comes in. The new electric aircraft deal hooks up the newly minted United Airlines Ventures investment fund with our friends over at Breakthrough Energy Ventures (more on that in a sec), Mesa Airlines, and Heart Aerospace. The initial agreement calls for Heart to deliver 100 of its ES-19 zero emission aircraft. Here, let’s have it explain:

“Heart Aerospace is developing the ES-19, a 19-seat electric aircraft that has the potential to fly customers up to 250 miles before the end of this decade. In addition to UAV’s investment, United Airlines has conditionally agreed to purchase 100 ES-19 aircraft, once the aircraft meet United’s safety, business and operating requirements. Mesa Airlines, United’s key strategic partner in bringing electric aircraft into commercial service, has also agreed to add 100 ES-19 aircraft to its fleet, subject to similar requirements.”

Sweet. Heart’s contribution to the cause is a battery-powered design that uses the same battery technology typically used in electric cars, which should provide wary travelers with reassurance that electric airplanes are not a new thing. They are just electric cars that fly.

Look Ma, No More Carbon Offsets

As for short-haul travel, the partners anticipate that ES-19 could take flight on 100 or more regional routes in United’s stable.

In terms of climate action the deal is especially interesting because it does not rely on carbon offsets, which is the conventional way for airline companies to “decarbonize.” Offsets can involve just about anything, including planting trees, and there are only so many trees you can plant, while the Earth is both burning and drowning all at the same time.

“It’s just not realistic to think you can plant enough trees” to have an impact on climate change, United CEO Scott Kirby wrote in a letter last year.

United has planted its share of trees and now it is on to bigger and better things. The company launched its Ventures branch just last month with an eyeball on developing “sustainability concepts that will complement United’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050 – without relying on traditional carbon offsets – as well as revolutionary aerospace developments and innovative technologies that are expected to create value for customers and United’s operation.”

“With this new agreement, United is deepening its bold commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 100% by 2050 without relying on traditional carbon offsets, as well as enabling the growth of Heart Aerospace and participating in the development of aircraft that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from flying,” United emphasizes.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures Hearts Electric Airplanes

The field of electric airplanes is just the latest venture for Breakthrough Energy Ventures. The heavy-hitting, A-listing investor group launched with a splash on the heels of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, as a creature of the the new Breakthrough Energy Coalition. At first we thought they were all about nuclear energy on account of co-founder Bill Gates’s interest in the nuclear firm TerraPower, but lately they have been all over the map.

Recent projects include deep decarbonization of the steel industry with an assist from green hydrogen. Meanwhile, Gates’s other startup is the concentrating solar power firm Heliogen, which is interesting because CSP has the potential to edge out nuclear power plants for a share of the utility scale, long duration power production market.

Electric Airplanes, Now With Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Breakthrough casts a wide decarbonization net, and no story about electric airplanes would be complete without mentioning hydrogen fuel cell electric airplanes, so it’s no surprise to find the fuel cell electric aircraft company ZeroAvia in the Breakthrough stable.

ZeroAvia first crossed the CleanTechnica radar back in 2019 and they have been very busy since then. Last December the company announced a new round of funding for its fuel cell flight technology through Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the Ecosystem Integrity Fund, and by March of this year it appeared that a plans were taking shape for zero emission fuel cell flight with a green hydrogen angle.

Enough With The Natural Gas, Already

The green hydrogen angle is critical because as of today, almost the entire global supply of hydrogen comes from natural gas. The green hydrogen market is only just getting under way, and it looks like Breakthrough is prepping to serve it up to the aviation sector as well as heavy industry.

Meanwhile, weaning battery-powered flight away from fossil-generated electricity is also a priority for the global aviation industry, at least it should be if they are really serious about decarbonization.

Here in the US, they better keep a wary eye on those natural gas stakeholders, who have been lobbying the Biden administration to provide for natural gas power plants to fulfill a significant role in decarbonization, as if that makes any sense. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t!

Leading energy buyers like United can help kick that idea to the curb. The new electric airplane deal is just part of the mix. United and other aviation stakeholders are already driving deep into biofuel territory, and United is also investing in direct air carbon capture.

Interesting! Direct air carbon capture would accomplish what trees can do, only presumably faster and more efficiently.

“United intends to make a multimillion-dollar investment in 1PointFive, Inc., a partnership between Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Occidental, and Rusheen Capital Management. 1PointFive’s mission is to curb the rise in global temperatures by physically removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air using Direct Air Capture technology licensed from Carbon Engineering,” United explains.

“Direct Air Capture technology is one of the few proven ways to physically correct for aircraft emissions, and can scale to capture millions and potentially billions of metric tons of CO2 per year,” the company enthuses.

Unfortunately for fans of the circular economy, the plan is to store the captured carbon underground. Say, can’t they put that to use making plastic or something? Stay tuned…

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: United Airlines plans a fleet of electric aircraft (courtesy of United Airlines via prnewswire.com)

 
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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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