Norway Sets its Sights on Electric Planes


writer icon Kay Lagercrantz     Zunum   |   Business     🕐 27. Apr. 2018

Norway has already announced an ambitious goal for all cars with a Norwegian registration to be emission-free by 2025 Not satisfied with this alone, Norway is now aiming for all domestic flights to be 100% powered by electricity. 

The average Norwegian takes a domestic flight 2.4 times a year.

More people are travelling by plane than ever before. However, this growth has slowed down during the last 5 years. One of the reasons for this is the increased concern over environmental impacts from air travel. Many people criticise others for taking what they deem to be unnecessary flights. This is even more prevalent when there is an alternative method of transport available. In the past, friends might brag about their air miles. Today, they are just as likely to be discreet in order to conceal their embarrassment at having such a high carbon footprint.

Environmental concern
The introduction of electric planes to the Norwegian skies might make all the difference. Electric flights are likely to appeal to the environmentally-minded. This could generate more passengers who would no longer see air travel as dangerous to the planet. While neighbouring Sweden has recently introduced an aviation tax, with plans to reinvest the money into saving the environment, Norway’s approach looks directly at the issue, tackling it head-on.

Rather than making money out of people flying, and using it retroactively to try and fix the problem. Norway is focusing on the planes themselves so that environmental dangers can be averted.

The small regional carrier Widerøe Airlines operate in Northern Norway, where the average person uses domestic air travel three times as often as those in the rest of Norway. Widerøe Airlines have shown an interest in updating their fleet to consist of electric planes, with plans to renew their aircraft to electric-powered by 2030. With competition on almost all domestic routes, this could lead to a higher number of passengers choosing to fly with them. In fact, the airline may set a new standard for what passengers want from their carrier, moving discussions away from legroom and airline food, and more towards carbon footprints and energy efficiency.

What about long-haul flights?
Domestic flights are one thing, but the impact of a long-haul flight on the environment is also significant. Apart from the amount of fossil fuel needed, there is a distinct lack of alternatives to air travel when flying intercontinental routes. However, at the moment the maximum time for an electric flight is somewhere around 1 hour and 30 minutes, which explains why the focus remains on domestic flights for now. As the technology evolves there will almost certainly be a solution for electrically powered flights on longer routes. Meanwhile, in this early phase, only domestic flights are being considered.

Slovenian aircraft manufacturer Pipistrel has developed an entirely electric powered plane, one of which will be delivered to Norway by May 2018. While it will be used primarily for demonstration purposes, the aim is for Norway to position itself as the pioneer for introducing electric aeroplanes into the market. Is the public truly ready for entirely electric powered planes? One might ask. And is it realistic to go straight over to electric planes, without a stepping stone along the way? 

The main concern for passengers and airlines is safety. People’s uncertainty may put them off flying altogether. While some may see their fears as irrational, many passengers may be too frightened to try an electric powered plane for fear of what would happen if they were to experience a power cut while in flight.

A startup backed by Boeing
Might we see airlines make a move towards a hybrid solution first? U.S. startup Zunum Aero has developed a hybrid commercial passenger plane. With backing from air giants Boeing, Zunum is offering a more comfortable transition from fossil fuels to electric planes. This is much like what happened in the car industry, where hybrids appeared first and helped to normalise the idea of electric powered cars.

It will be interesting to see how the cost of an electric flight will compare to the cost of the fossil fuel planes that fly today. Will updating to a fleet of electronic planes become a way for airlines to save money? With a lot of people choosing airlines based on their ticket prices, investing in electric planes could be a way for an airline to offer cheaper tickets without cutting back on the quality of service they offer onboard. The general consensus is that electric flights will be cheaper to run. However, presently most designs are for planes that carry less than thirty passengers when operating at full capacity. Having so few seats to sell rather limits the money-making potential.

Budget airlines vs flagship carriers
While Widerøe Airlines have already made public their plans to include electric planes in their fleet, it remains to be seen if any other airlines will also jump on board. Will it be budget carriers such as Ryanair who are next in line, in order to save money on fuel costs? It is perhaps more likely that a flagship carrier, such as Scandinavian Airlines, will be next to trial electric planes. It could enable them to compete with low-cost carriers on ticket prices. Meanwhile, they could maintain the higher level of service that their frequent fliers expect.

One thing is clear, Norway is making a statement about renewable energy. And that is very interesting, coming from a country whose vast wealth depends on the exportation of oil.

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