Aviation is heading for the largest carbon emitter in the transport sector. Can a small Canadian airline prove to the whole industry that there are more environmentally friendly methods?
Compared to the usual flights, the four-minute voyage of the de Havilland seaplane in the dawn sky before returning to the Fraser River near Richmond in British Columbia may seem like a brief getaway. However, this short journey may have marked the beginning of the aviation revolution. Those with a sharper hearing standing on the river bank on a cold December morning could notice, in addition to the rumble of propellers and the splashing of water, the six-passenger de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver taking off and landing: the deep growling of the aircraft’s nine-cylinder internal combustion engines . The machine was equipped with an exclusively electric motor built by the technology company magniX, which took several months to install. The four-minute test drive (the plane could only be used in clear skies, so rain and fog shortened the first flight) was the first time a purely electric passenger carrier had risen into the sky.
“This is the first step towards the electric air revolution,” boasted Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX. The company has partnered with Canadian Harbor Air Seaplanes to transform a member of the fleet to run on batteries instead of fossil fuels. Harbor Air founder and pilot Greg McDougall has long advocated environmentally friendly alternatives, giving him years of work with test flying. Harbor Air, which has a regional fleet of roughly forty regional seaplane counters serving the coastal areas of Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle, was the first to neutralize its carbon footprint in North America. The next step was to grass up their Victorian terminal, and in 2017 the company also set up fifty solar panels and four hives home to a total of ten thousand honey bees. However, the ultimate goal of Tesla-owner McDougall, who is interested in disruptive technologies, remains to electrify the fleet.
McDougall had been looking for the right alternative for years, and his ambitious plans were already pushed all the way back when Ganzarski finally approached him in February 2019. “He said we want to patent our engine and test it in the air before the end of the year,” McDougall recalls. It soon became clear that the two companies ’environmental values were the same, and even their employees could work well together, so there was no question of them forming an alliance. Eleven months later, the modest Canadian airline’s first, as McDougall calls it, e-plane has skyrocketed to overtake the electric aircraft projects of giant companies such as Airbus, Boeing or Rolls-Royce. “The project was completed in record time, especially considering how risk-averse the aviation sector is in general. Someone had to take on the role of leader. I live in British Columbia because of the closeness to nature. It goes without saying for me that I am doing my best to protect our environment. If we take into account all the useful benefits of electric flying, there was no question that we wanted to be the ones to show the way to others, ”McDougall added.
Although electric airplanes have been around since the 1970s, they have so far only been reported as lightweight, short-range, experimental, and far-flung solar-powered airplanes. However, the threat of the climate crisis has rekindled interest in the development of electric passenger carriers, which would provide an opportunity to reduce both CO2 emissions and operating costs at the same time. According to the consulting firm Roland Berger, there are currently about 170 projects involved in the development of electric aircraft – 50% more than in April 2018. Most of the projects are developing futuristic-looking urban air taxis, private jets or parcel-carrying aircraft. Giants such as Airbus have also announced that they want to turn their own aircraft into electric ones. I want to launch their E-Fan X hybrid passenger prototype in 2021 for the first time. However, only one of the aircraft’s four engines would be replaced by a 2-megawatt electric motor powered by combined power from an onboard battery and a generator connected to a turbofan engine that still uses fossil fuel in the fuselage.
That’s why Harbor Air is different. Smaller, shorter-distance seaplanes commute between British Columbia and Washington State, making it easier to charge the aircraft’s battery. The company hopes to modernize its entire fleet to make traffic in the area as green as possible. There are several benefits to this. The efficiency of widely used internal combustion engines for such aircraft is quite low. Much of the energy from the fuel is not used as waste heat while the propeller is driven. Electric motors have fewer moving parts, so their maintenance and upkeep costs are lower. Erika Holtz, Harbor Air’s technical and quality director, said electric planes are the next step for aviation, but also draws attention to the fact that people’s sense of safety can be a problem. “We know mechanical systems much better, so we trust them better,” he says. “In contrast, electrical systems may seem unknown, just think of our home computer. A simple restart in aviation will not solve our problem. ”
For Holtz, the long-term reform of aviation was the most exciting point in the Harbor Air / magniX project. He claims that aviation technology has stalled in development in recent decades. “While we have witnessed additional developments in some technologies, we have not seen a remarkably large, forward-looking change in the last fifty years.” Battery capacity is one area that needs further development. Most experts believe that we do not have to reckon with huge, fully electric passenger planes for a while. This is because current battery technology cannot yet take up the fight against aviation fuel capacity. The power density of aviation fuels is very high, at about 12,000 watts per kilogram, compared to just 200 for a lithium-ion battery. Harbor Air’s small, single- or twin-engine short-haul aircraft don’t require that much energy, so they don’t need huge batteries either. “Most of our routes can be served by the technology available today,” McDougall adds.
Thanks to the technology available today, a 62-year-old Beaver airframe and the use of lithium-ion batteries already licensed by Nasa, it is hoped the aircraft will go through the Canadian Federal Transportation and Aviation Authority certification process faster than building a new aircraft from the ground up. Harbor Air hopes to be able to carry paying guests on its e-planes within two years. “Not everyone in Canada thinks of innovation,” says Holtz. “There are a lot of rules to follow, especially in aviation. However, the Canadian transportation industry has proven to be very cooperative, working on our help all the time instead of setting up new pitfalls. ” However, electrifying the Harbor Air fleet is unlikely to bring about a major change in aviation CO2 emissions.
“Aircraft designed to carry 2 to 12 passengers make a very small contribution to total global emissions. If we take into account all the aircraft with a distance of less than 800 kilometers (and even with large differences in size, most are designed to carry far more passengers than 2-12 people), it is still less than the global per capita fuel consumption and coal we get only 10% of our CO2 emissions, ”said Lynette Dray, a senior researcher at the University College London’s Institute of Energy. Dray said the Canadian airline could have a really big impact on the public. “It’s very helpful to bring different prototypes to market so passengers can get to know and start trusting these models,” he added. Harbor Air and magniX have no secret intention of paving the way for other projects to develop electric passenger carriers. According to the International Council on Clean Transport (ICCT), aviation contributes 2.4% of global CO2 emissions, of which flights from the United States are responsible for 24% of global passenger transport emissions. “This data should encourage everyone to change,” Ganzarski said.
“In my opinion, the whole world should head towards electric aviation. We need to get rid of CO2 emissions and reduce operating costs. The more companies start to deal with this, the better. We are already here and we will show the way. ”