Green mobility is spreading to the seas and skies

Electric cars are now a familiar sight on roads, but what about the seas and the skies? Today, transport modes that once seemed out of reach for electric and hybrid technologies are now showing surprising potential for green mobility, offering hope that transport’s environmental impact can be brought down dramatically.

It was at the Paris Air Show in June that an Israeli aircraft manufacturer Eviation unveiled Alice, which it describes as the world’s first fully-electric commercial airplane. Alice, which can seat up to nine passengers, is all-composite airplane, powered by a 980kWh lithium-ion battery, which can enable flight for 1,000km at 440km/hour on a single charge.

Alice is just one of a number of electric aircraft that could drastically cut aviation pollution, which accounts for 2% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Consultancy Roland Berger estimates that there are 170 electric aircraft in development around the world, up by 50% since April 2018.

Electric Plane Revolution

It may be too early to talk of a complete electric plane revolution, mainly because the batteries are still too heavy for long-haul flights. But there are opportunities in the short-haul market.

Investment bank UBS predicts the aviation sector will quickly switch to hybrid and electric aircraft for regional travel, with an eventual demand for 550 hybrid airliners each year between 2028 and 2040. With two billion air tickets sold each year for flights of under 800km, the business potential for small electric passenger aircraft is clear. Crucially, electricity is much cheaper than conventional fuel – for a 200km flight, it could just 2.5% of the cost of conventional fuel.

Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens are working on the E-Fan X programme, which will have a two megawatt (2MW) electric motor mounted on a BAE 146 jet. Airbus has its own ‘electric vertical take-off and landing’ (eVtol) aircraft in development, while the concept has also attracted the attention of ride-hailing app Uber. Lilium, a proposed German vertical take-off and landing electrically-powered airplane, embeds 36 jet engines into the wings, allowing those wing flaps to swivel and transition the jet mid-flight. And low-cost airline EasyJet is working with Wright Electric to develop an electric aircraft in its regular services by 2027.

Pioneers of the future

Some equally innovative activities are taking place on the seas. In June, the world’s first battery-powered hybrid cruise ship set sail from northern Norway to the Arctic on its maiden voyage.

The hybrid expedition cruise ship, the Roald Amundsen, can take 500 passengers and is designed to sail in harsh climate waters. While the engines run mainly on marine gasoil, the ship’s battery pack enables it to run solely on batteries for around 45 to 60 minutes under ideal conditions. The company estimates that the battery pack will reduce fuel consumption and save about 20% in carbon emissions.

Like with airplanes, battery technology for propelling ships is in its infancy, even on shorter routes, as few ports provide charging stations. Similarly, the pioneers say the future for batteries hinges on the development of lighter, more powerful systems.

At the same time, vehicle manufactures are investing heavily in electric technologies. Global automakers are planning a $300 billion surge in spending on electric vehicle technology over the next five to 10 years but have admitted that higher component costs and limited take-up in initial years will hit margins.

All these developments show that the electric revolution is real. The transformation to electric engines will be costly and will take time to generate profits. But it is happening on the roads, in the air and at sea.