Electric and solar planes: the next step in e-mobility?

Solar and electric planes signify a huge reshaping of air travel operations in the coming decades.
Published: Mon 26 Feb 2018

When the Wright brothers took a short flight near Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, no one would have imagined this to be the starting point for an industry that is now one of the biggest culprits in high carbon emission levels.

Airplanes can cause contrails and lead to the formation of cirrus clouds that have a strong climate impact. According to a 2011 study done by the Institute for Atmospheric Physics at the German Aerospace Centre, these contrails have a significant effect on the climate and cause warming over much shorter periods of time than carbon emissions. Aviation is responsible for 1% of international carbon emissions, and estimates suggest that the carbon footprint of airplanes could be up to 70% higher in 2020 than they were in 2005.

Since putting an end to air travel is not a viable option in today’s world, companies and research centres have been looking at various options that will make airplanes more environmentally friendly. Recent innovations in aerospace technology can put an end to the massive carbon footprint of airplanes as they attempt to introduce solar-powered and electric craft.

Solar Impulse team after the aircraft landed in Abu Dhabi

Aircraft powered by solar energy

For example, power and automation technology group ABB partnered with Solar Impulse to develop an aircraft to journey around the world on solar power alone. The flight was successfully completed in July 2016 after spending a total of 23 days in the air. The plane used no fossil fuels to complete the journey.

The airplane had a total of over 17,000 solar cells embedded in its wings, and these served to keep four 10hp electric motors up and running. The solar cells also communicated with lithium batteries to store solar energy.

The solar-powered flight was a pioneering move for air travel as well as for the energy industry, even if solar technology will not conceivably dominate commercial air travel in the near future. There have not been any reported solar-powered flights since Solar Impulse’s initiative was completed in 2016.

The revolution led by electric airplanes

Other noteworthy contenders to make air travel more sustainable are electric airplanes. Several manufacturers, the biggest of which is Airbus, are carrying out projects to see this through. In January 2018, Airbus achieved a successful test flight of a self-piloted electric craft and plans on bringing the crafts to market by 2020. Slovenian manufacturer Pipistrel also completed a test flight in January 2018 in Australia.

In addition, British low-cost airline EasyJet has announced its intention to phase in electric airplanes for short-haul flights within a decade. It has partnered with American tech startup Wright Electric to see the project through. In Norway, plans are more ambitious: the country aims for all of its outbound airplanes to be electric by 2040, with test flights set to begin by 2025.

The road ahead on sustainable travel

Advocating for the potential that solar-powered aircraft holds, ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer says that they are convinced that by pioneering innovative technologies, the company will be able to decouple economic growth from energy consumption and environmental impact.

Likewise, companies investing in the technology to employ electric planes in the foreseeable future firmly believe it holds the key to a cleaner future for air travel. EasyJet - which has been committed to reducing its carbon emissions on fossil fuel airplanes since 2000 - stands by the clear and significant environmental benefit the implementation of electric aircraft will bring, and adds that it has the added advantage of producing up to 50% less noise and being more economically viable.

Airbus, which has been responsible for numerous electric aircraft projects, has said of its partnership with Siemens and Rolls-Royce to create a hybrid-electric passenger plane: “[It] will pave the way to a hybrid single-aisle commercial aircraft that is safe, efficient, and cost-effective,” according to Paul Eremenko, Airbus’ Chief Technology Officer. “We see hybrid-electric propulsion as a compelling technology for the future of aviation.”

Thus, even if electric airplanes are still in the early stages of development and incapable of carrying a larger number of passengers, it is plausible that they will be available for commercial travel within the next few decades.

As cleaner, cheaper, quieter and more efficient alternatives to aircraft powered by fossil fuels, this suggests that utilities can expect electric aircraft to move up in their list of priorities in years to come. It is possible, even, that once electric planes evolve from the testing stage and move on to retail, they might initiate a turning point for the aviation and energy markets on the same scale that electric vehicles are currently transforming their respective fields.