Wind investors should benefit if electric planes take off


September 10, 2018

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Electric planes could become a reality soon and open up new opportunities for wind companies.

Yes, they may be at a very early stage of development, but plane makers, engine manufacturers and renewable energy firms have been exploring ways to make electric planes commercially viable.

The interest from industrial players in electric planes is mainly because global aviation now accounts for 2.5% of carbon emissions and this number is set to increase. The International Air Transport Association forecasts that the number of passengers is on track to double in the next 20 years.

This means that industry giants including Boeing, Airbus and Rolls Royce have been feeling the pressure to find new ways to reduce their emissions. For example, Rolls Royce and Siemens are currently developing hybrid-electric aircraft demonstrator Airbus E-Fan X, and they hope to create a model capable of flying in 2020.

While there is still a long way to go to make commercial electric aircrafts viable, the technology has already attracted the attention of renewable energy firms.

One of the most recent examples comes from Finland, where utility Fortum has entered a partnership with the Helsinki Electric Airplane Association to test the Pipistrel Alpha, the first serial produced electric airplane purchased in the country. We spoke to Fortum’s project manager Tapio Poutiainen to find out more.

He said that, for Fortum, e-planes represent the natural evolution of its investment in charging infrastructure for electric vehicles in Scandinavia, including its Charge&Drive programme, with over 1,800 smart chargers across Norway, Sweden and Finland: “We have been a pioneer in the development and expansion of the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles in the Nordic countries. Now we want to apply the experience we’ve gained about the EV charging infrastructure in the development of electric aviation,” he said.

Renewables including wind are set to play a key role in the development of technology for e-planes: “Lowering energy consumption is an important motivation for the electrification of aviation”, Poutiainen has argued. “All of Fortum’s charging locations for electric vehicles are currently powered by wind energy. I believe we can do the same for electric planes in the future.”

The opportunity for renewables developers here is that electric planes would create new demand for wind and solar capacity. In countries like Germany, which is currently experiencing a restriction of activity in its onshore market, electric planes could trigger the need for the construction of new capacity underpinned by corporate power purchase agreements. Meanwhile, countries like Italy, Spain, or China could use the surplus of solar and wind energy they produce, and which currently goes wasted, to power e-planes.

The market is still at its infancy, though.

For example, Pipistrel Alpha is set to be used mainly for flight training. This is because its batteries’ capacity can cover only short-hauls flights: “In flight training the short range does not matter as training consists mostly of taking off and landing”, Poutiainen explained.

However, in the near future, there is scope to build small hubs close to cities, and use electric planes to develop an air taxi network that would serve intercity traffic, in countries including Finland: “As electric planes are emission-free and low-noise, this is an attractive option for cities”, Poutiainen argued. Norway committed last month to use electric planes for all short-haul flights within the country by 2040, for example.

There are still many challenges to overcome before this becomes a reality, particularly in terms of design and battery requirements. In this sense, renewables can help. As the wind and solar industries keep expanding, the need increases for battery technology that makes renewable energy stable and reliable. Research on batteries triggered by the use of renewables would also benefit the development of electric aircrafts.

The right balance between weight, reliability, and cost has proven challenging for e-planes. However, a close collaboration between renewables and electric aviation could be highly valuable if this market is to take off.

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