A modern Boeing 777 aircraft. via envato

Flights of fancy: Can electric planes make flying sustainable?

How close are we, really, to sustainable aviation?

On 17 December 1903, two brothers who ran a bike shop in the U.S. state of North Carolina made history on a remote strip of beach near the town of Kittywake. Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the air in the first-ever flight by a powered, heavier-than-air flying machine.

Just over 120 years on, there’s a new challenge afoot for aviation aficionados. Air travel is one of the most carbon-intensive forms of transport: a single long-haul flight has a similar total carbon impact to driving a gasoline-powered car for a year.

So, as the global aviation industry works to meet the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) target of net-zero emissions by 2050, it’s also pushing rapid innovation in how planes are powered.

Last February, we wrote that electric and hydrogen-powered planes were likely still “decades away” from large-scale application. A year on, full decarbonization remains a fair way off, given the capacity and storage limitations of electric batteries and hydrogen.

“The challenge for batteries is to pack in enough energy to replace jet fuel but remain light enough to not increase a plane’s weight too much,” says Geneva-based commercial aviation industry body Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). “To put it in perspective, liquid jet fuel currently yields roughly 43 times more energy than an equivalent mass of battery.”

While scores of researchers tackle this conundrum, many more are making key developments on a number of other fronts. But – spoiler alert – this won’t be enough to justify guilt-free global jetsetting, at least for another decade.

A rendering of the Eviation Alice commuter plane. Image courtesy of Eviation.

Go small or go home

Some innovators are focusing on small, short-range, fully-electric designs. Electric motor manufacturer magniX flew an all-electric nine-passenger Cessna for 30 minutes in 2020, making it the largest electric aircraft to take to the air at the time.

Washington-based startup Eviation Aircraft is channeling its electrification efforts into commuter flights – those under 400 kilometers, which made up 29 percent of all flights in the US in 2019, and which CEO Greg Davis says are “perfect” for electric planes.

In 2022, the company completed a successful test flight of its nine-passenger Alice aircraft, which is set to enter service around 2027.

Such innovations will be more impactful in some contexts than others. New Zealand’s national airline, Air New Zealand, is a big early investor – given the country’s small size, low population density, and largely-renewable electricity grid, much of Air New Zealand’s fleet already consists of small planes flying relatively short distances.

This makes it a good candidate for swapping out its domestic fleet with more sustainable aircraft – which the company aims to do by 2030, though it acknowledges that “the technology isn’t advanced enough for us to make a decision yet around what aircraft we will use.”

The company has already pre-ordered up to 23 Eviation Alice aircraft, as well as a light electric cargo aircraft from U.S. firm Beta Technologies that will be deployed for mail delivery around the country from 2026, carrying up to 560 kilograms of mail.

However, Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran told The Guardian that it will be trickier to decarbonize its larger planes, particularly those used for long-haul international flights. It will likely rely on the development and expanded availability of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which can reduce emissions by up to 80 percent.

Unfortunately, the uptake of such fuels has been constrained to date by high production costs and limited supply: they comprise just 0.1 percent of all jet fuel currently being used.

A rendering of the Heart Aerospace ES-30. Image courtesy of Heart Aerospace.

Hybrid hopes

Other innovators are betting on hybrid-electric technology for scalability. The six-seat hybrid-electric EcoPulse successfully performed its first test flight in December 2023. Swedish company Heart Aerospace is developing a 30-seat aircraft that can fly fully electric for about 200 kilometers, then switch to SAF for distances of up to 800 kilometers. The 80-seat Maeve M-80, planned for 2031, aims to take those ambitions a step further.

Combining hydrogen and electric technology also holds promise. U.K. company ZeroAvia first flew the world’s largest hydrogen-electric aircraft, a 19-seater, last January. Aerospace giant Airbus is getting in on the act, too, by developing three hybrid-hydrogen and one electric aircraft, which it aims to bring to market by 2035.

To use hydrogen effectively and safely, the industry will need to work out how to produce, transport and store it, as well as build special infrastructure to handle the fuel at airports.

Lighter than air

French company Euro Airship is going further ‘outside the box’ by kicking off this year with the construction of an electric, solar- and hydrogen-powered airship, Solar Airship One, that it plans to fly around the world non-stop in 2026. If they succeed, this will be the first aircraft to make the trip without using fossil fuels.

Being lighter than air, airships don’t require nearly as much propulsion as other craft. A solar film on the ship’s upper surface will gather electricity, with the surplus being stored in fuel cells and converted to hydrogen to keep the ship going. With its renewable energy system, the ship should theoretically be able to stay aloft indefinitely.

“Throughout history, all great dreams have been considered impossible before they were accomplished,” says the development team on the project’s website. “Today, the adventure must continue by realizing a great epic in the service of environmental protection and renewable energies, intended to create enthusiasm around the climate challenges of the 21st century.”

Exciting times, for sure. Back down here on Earth, however, there’s still a long way to go before sustainable aviation becomes feasible on a large scale.

That reality check only reiterates what many have been saying for years: that the only way to decarbonize aviation quickly enough to avert climate catastrophe is to fly less.

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