With electricity into the sky

The aviation industry is one of the biggest polluters, but start-ups like Zunum Aero are looking to change this. With the support of Boeing and the airline JetBlue, Zunum plans to build hybrid-electric airplanes that can cover short distances without a drop of fuel. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Zunum Aero plans to build a hybrid-electric aircraft in a bid to reduce aviation emissions. (Image credit: Zunum Aero)

The aviation industry is learning a thing or two from electric carmaker Tesla.

Zunum Aero recently received funding from Boeing and the airline JetBlue to build hybrid-electric planes that executives argue can make comfortable and affordable short-haul flights while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent or more once battery efficiencies improve.

“Door-to-door times for most journeys are no better than they were 50 years ago,” said Zunum Aero Founder and Chief Executive Ashish Kumar. “Hybrid propulsion is an industry-changing solution, enabling mid-sized aircraft on regional routes to have better cost efficiencies than airliners.”

Right time for electric aviation

While the company has yet to deliver on its promises, climate watchers said Zunum Aero and other electric aviation companies like Wright Electric are popping up at just the right time.

“It’s difficult to assess whether these sorts of investments in breakthrough plane technology will yield whatever they promise,” said Brad Schallert, deputy director of International Climate Cooperation at the World Wildlife Fund.

“But we should all be cheering them on so that aviation can contribute its fair share to meeting the temperature goals set by countries in the Paris agreement.”

In 2015, the US pledged in Paris to reduce Americans’ climate footprint by at least 26 per cent compared to 2005 levels by 2025.

Exhaust high in the atmosphere

Aircraft emit around 2 per cent of global greenhouse gases, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

But they contribute to around 5 per cent of global warming because they dump their exhaust high in the atmosphere, said Schallert.

Auto manufacturers, utilities and other industries are taking measures to reduce their discharges, Schallert said. But aircraft emissions are on track to increase by 300 per cent through 2050 compared to 2005 levels unless companies, governments and innovators figure out ways to cut planes’ pollution, he added.

Better use of regional air market

Founded three years ago, Washington State-based Zunum Aero believes the regional air market is a profitable route to environmental sustainability, arguing that America’s more underused regional airports provide a ready-made transportation network that could help passengers cut driving times and airport waiting on trips of less than 1,600 kilometres.

Its 10 to 50-seat aircraft could fly the 400 kilometres between San Jose and Pasadena in 2.5 hours with the goal of eventually zeroing out the carbon dioxide and other emissions at regional airports that produce around 40 per cent of American aviation emissions, Zunum Aero’s website claimed.

The country has 13,500 airports but 97 per cent of American air traffic passes through 140 major hubs, according to the company.

Cheaper than jet fuel

Where and how Zunum Aero charged its planes would impact its carbon footprint, said Schallert. Drawing power from coal-fired plants pollutes the atmosphere, too, after all.

But in his blog, Wright Electric Chief Executive Jeff Engler addressed that concern while detailing how an electric plane traveling 450 kilometres would save around half the cost of fuel that comprises commercial carriers’ biggest budget item.

Solar power and batteries prices are on a downward trend, wrote Engler, suggesting that renewable energy providers will be able to meet demand as electric planes and other clean tech start competing with gas-guzzling jumbo jets.

“It goes without saying that there’s lots of uncertainty in these numbers. Maybe jet fuel will get cheaper,” wrote Engler. “But there’s room for optimism.”

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