In 2015, 276 million TONS of jet fuel were burned by airlines. That was just about 7% of all global oil products, and in turn the burning of this oil makes up about 2.7 percent of all energy related carbon emissions. If that wasn’t bad enough, direct carbon emissions from airlines only make up about half of the sector’s total global carbon emissions! Other greenhouse gases admitted and contrails formed which keeps heat in the atmosphere also contribute to their total.
It is apparent that air travel is having a huge impact on the environment, and the demand for it is only going one way, up. This means that the damage will continue to increase unless some alternative or improvement is established. One alternative that has been proposed, and has received backing from major Airplane Manufacturers, is electric aircraft. But how feasible is this idea, to have electric commercial aircraft to transport passengers?
Planes have already been getting more and more efficient over the years, fuel is the one of the largest expenses for airlines, and therefore reducing the amount of fuel that they consume has been a major priority. However this efficiency is increasing at only about 2% per year, which is being overshadowed by the 4.5 percent increase in demand for air travel per year.
Electric aircraft are looked at as an answer to the pollution problems, but there are many challenges, both economic and technical, that have to be overcome before that can become a reality. Plus, electric aircraft must be adapted so heavily that they would have to make up the vast majority of the major airlines’ fleets. However, the opportunity for success is too large for scientists and engineers to ignore, so they are attacking the challenge head on.
Batteries, The Biggest Pro and Con of Electric Aircraft
Battery power for transport is referred to by some as being similar to the “chicken or egg” conundrum. More range for vehicles means more batteries, but more batteries means there is more weight – which reduces the range! For electric flight to become a real thing, the power to weight ratio of batteries will have to increase fourfold, from about 250 watt-hours to 800 watt-hours. Some experts have stated that they will only consider electric flight to be a real possibility when batteries reach the 400 watt-hours mark.
Batteries at the 800 watt-hour mark would make it possible to transport 150 passengers up to 600 miles, or 1,111 kilometers. An electric aircraft meeting this specification could possibly replace half of the flights all over the world. Doubling this to 1,200 miles, or 2,222 kilometers, would replace 80 percent of flights. The problem is, that battery density is only increasing at three to four percent a year, which puts the expected date these goals will be reached well into the second half of the century.
Maybe Not As Clean As Advertised?
There is no doubt that electric aircraft would totally remove all emissions directly created from aircraft. But the knock-on problem from this is that the total carbon emissions that an aviation industry that is all-electric produces will be dependent on how clean the electricity used to build and recharge batteries is.
Based on figures from 2015, an electric aircraft would actually produce more carbon emission over its lifespan than a jet fueled airplane. This is solely down to the emission produced from creating the electricity used to create and charge the batteries. When impacts outside of CO2 are considered however, the global emissions impact actually decreases by 30 percent, and that will increase as the electricity grid gets greener.
Will Companies Adopt This New Technology?
It is one thing creating the technology and making it feasible, it is a whole different problem making the electric aircraft attractive to airlines. Let’s assume that there is no law passed that enforces adoption of electrical aircraft, what would make airlines incorporate electric aircraft into their fleet? Their conscience and want for our impact on the environment to decrease? Maybe, but probably not. Electric aircraft must at least break even or be cheaper to run than their jet-fueled counterparts.
To achieve this, electricity would have to drop below four to six cents per kWh, or jet fuel would have to rise above $100 a barrel. There are talks of policies being brought in to encourage airlines to switch, where tax breaks or partial refunds will be available when electric aircraft are purchased. Who knows what the future holds!
How soon do you think that electric aircraft will be adopted? Would you feel safe in one? Let us know in the comments below!
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