How Far Are We From Flying Zero-Emission Airplanes?

Today human beings can feel they are in a difficult spot. The constant flow of bad news from the media about the impacts of global warming are taking their toll on consumers, particularly young people who feel powerless about it. To add insult to injury, it’s simply not cool to talk about. A recent article on NBC details how it is socially unacceptable to talk about climate change publicly. A Yale survey found that 65% of those surveyed discuss global warming “never” or “rarely.”At the same time making eco-conscious decisions come at a cost, and not every person can always make the green choice. For example, many of us have to travel for work, and flying is the only way to do so. Unfortunately today there is no solar powered airplane. Some airlines have offered a way to upgrade to a more sustainable flight option, but that can be more expensive and not an option for the average traveler. What are consumers to do? Consumers are concerned and would like options so they can continue to live their life in a normal manner as much as possible. But in some corners of the earth we have the hope of innovation, of start-ups that are focusing on creating solutions, not simply spreading bad news. In fact the future of zero-emission airplanes could be right around the corner.

  • Aviation is one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions, and the issue will only continue to grow.
  • Many travelers are ashamed of flying or are changing their travel plans to avoid airplanes.
  • The future is electric planes, which produce zero emissions and use a rechargeable battery.
  • Startups and large companies are developing electric planes, which are currently being tested. They could be in flight for commercial use in the next 20 years.
  • Before electric planes can be commonplace, the batteries and regulations need to improve.

Environmental Impact Of Flying

While I don’t want to be part of the media problem of simply depressing readers who largely have no power over these issues, we need regulators and airliners to know the facts. Aviation is one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions. Airplane emissions have increased by 4.3% each year since 1999 and are expected to make up 25% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2050.

As the environmental impact of planes takes center stage, many passengers are becoming reluctant to fly. In Sweden, it’s known as flygskam, or flying shame. Frequent fliers are getting called out for their activities, and a record number of people are choosing to travel by train instead of by plane. The greenhouse gas emissions of one person flying round-trip from New York to London is the same as what it takes to heat a single-family home for a year. To save the same amount of pollution created from that single flight, a person would have to recycle every household item for eight years or not eat meat for two years.

But there could be an end in sight. Zero-emission planes could soon replace traditional fuel-powered airplanes to drastically cut back on air pollution.

The Future of Electric Planes

The most realistic zero-emission planes will be electric. The concept is similar to electric cars, but in the air. Instead of using traditional fuel to power a plane, which releases large amount of pollution, electric planes use large batteries that are chargeable and provide a powerful and clean flight.

Electric planes are ideal for trips less than 1,000 miles, which produce 40% of all aviation emissions but are still short enough to ideally travel on a single charge. Many people choose to drive on their sub-1,000-mile trips, but traveling by electric plane could cut emissions by an additional 4-8%.

Zero-Emission Planes In Action

Electric planes are already being tested around the world. Last summer, the two-seater plane e-Genius climbed to more than 20,000 feet in the French Alps and went faster than 140 miles per hour. The electric plane, which was designed by engineers at the University of Stuttgart, flew 300 miles on a single battery charge. Aside from releasing no emissions, it only cost $3 in energy to fly, and it released just a fifth of the energy that a traditional two-seater fuel-powered plane would use to fly the same distance.

Zero-emission planes aren’t limited to researchers and startups. Aviation giants like Boeing, Airbus and Raytheon are also experimenting with eco-friendly airplane designs. Boeing is working on the SUGAR Volt plane that uses both electricity and fuel, similar to a hybrid car. The idea was first created in 2006, and Boeing is working with NASA to deliver results by 2040. Airbus is building E-Fan X, a battery-powered plane that replaces one of its four traditional engines with an electric motor that has the equivalent power of 10 cars. The E-Fan X is expected to take its first flight in 2021, and Airbus hopes to use it as a commuter plane within 20 years.

When Will We See Electric Planes?

Many experts predict that electric planes could be relatively commonplace within 20 years. However, they will likely be small planes that can hold around 100 passengers and will fly mostly between regional airports. The potential in this arena is huge: the electric aircraft industry is projected to reach more than $22 billion by 2035.

However, there are a number of roadblocks to conquer before we can hop on an electric plane. The most obvious is battery power. While today’s batteries seem to be effective, they aren’t powerful enough to be used in anything more than a small plane that only flies short distances. Batteries need to be smaller and lighter before they can be used on commercial planes. Fuel is very dense and includes a lot of energy in a relatively small space and weight, which batteries need to be able to match or improve.

Regulation is also a huge issue. The Federal Aviation Administration has yet to approve electric planes for passenger travel. In order for zero-emission aircraft to be commonplace, the FAA needs to update its guidelines to include more than just traditional fuel-powered planes.

Zero-emission airplanes are the future of flying. As carbon emissions continue to grow from air travel and more customers are concerned amount their impact on the environment, the need for electric planes will only intensify. The future could be in the sky before we know it.

Blake Morgan is a customer experience futurist, keynote speaker and the author of two books including The Customer Of The Future: 10 Guiding Principles For Winning Tomorrow’s Business.  Sign up for her weekly customer experience newsletter here.

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