The very first crossing of the English Channel in a heavier-than-air craft happened in July 1909 when pilot Louis Bleriot won £1,000 crossing from Calais to Dover. 106 years later, in July 2015, two more landmark flights took place over the Channel. The flights, by Hugues Duval and subsequently by Didier Esteyne, were newsworthy because these planes were powered solely by electricity – they used no fossil fuels whatsoever.
At first glance the average person might not notice anything out of the ordinary about the two electric planes. Both used twin fans or propellers driven by lithium-ion battery-powered 32-kW electric motors. Esteyne’s Airbus model took off and landed as any other plane would, though Duval’s “Cri-Cri” model needed to be towed into the air by a conventional plane, which raised questions about whether the flight was legitimate.
While battery electric drone aircraft and UAVs have long existed, they carry no passengers. The Solar Challenger, a completely solar-powered airplane that carried its pilot around the world in 1981 had no ability to store energy, and so confined flying to daytime in clear weather. The Solar Impulse 2, which as of July 17th was waiting for better weather to complete its round the world flight is more advanced, allowing for continuous 24-hour flight via onboard batteries. However, the Impulse is still limited by the fact that there are a narrow set of weather conditions and even times of year under which it can safely operate. The two channel planes have the best of all worlds, able to carry human pilots at high speed in varying conditions with a reliable power source.
Like their automotive equivalents, electric planes are zero-emission, strikingly quiet, and mechanically simpler and easier to maintain than their fossil-powered counterparts. These qualities make them ideal as training aircraft: trainers tend to make many passes over the same area, so quieter craft are welcomed by flight school neighbours. There are also plans to expand applications into smaller-sized airliners, able to carry 20 or so passengers under 100% battery power, and larger, 100 passenger versions with hybrid fossil-electric engines.
Other advantages include potential cost savings: jet fuel prices are volatile, ranging from expensive to extremely so, while electricity prices tend to be relatively lower, consistent and predictable. Finally, the possibility of reducing the carbon intensity of air travel with zero emissions planes charging their batteries with zero emission power will be attractive to some passengers, organizations and policy makers.
Electric planes were not on my radar until last year. I had thought that air travel would be impossible to electrify, based on conventional wisdom. But there are always examples where “the impossible” becomes “possible but unserious” on its way to being “the thing that serious people are making happen every day”. My prediction is this – solid business fundamentals in niche markets for electric flight (training planes and short-range passenger flights) will drive investment in ever lighter and more efficient batteries, motors and materials. Ground-based travel will benefit, as it ever has, from innovation in aviation, doubly so for electric cars that share so much engineering. The consumer will benefit from innovations in both, improving economics and choice, until electric powered transportation is as common as fossil powered is today.
Getting back to the crossing, besides being a symbolic accomplishment that conjures up a spirit of adventure and daring, experience suggests that these contests are more significant than prize money or bragging rights. Before Charles Lindbergh, transcontinental flight was understood by intelligent people to be an impossible, silly dream as well as a dangerous waste of time – after all, ships were available, comfortable and well-understood. Now, a passenger only goes aboard an ocean-going ship when they are purposely trying to slow things down.
So will these little flights across the channel matter? Only for those going somewhere.
Manager, Environmental Science and Policy
Canadian Electricity Association