Why the Electric Airplane is "Necessary"

Industry News - Article from Medium.com - 10 Sep 2018

Photo by John Cobb

During a recent podcast Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, referred to the electric airplane as not being “necessary right now.” While those who viewed the over two hour long “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast might have found the discussion very insightful, the conversation unfortunatly was reduced to a single moment when Musk smoked pot on camera. Leaving that overanalyzed issue aside, the one thing from the discussion that stuck in my mind was question asking is the electric car that much more important than the electric airplane?


In the full context of the conversation Musk was discussing his concern of the further use of fossil fuels.

“We’re really playing a crazy game here with the atmosphere and the oceans,” Musk said. “We’re taking vast amounts of carbon from deep underground and putting this in the atmosphere — this is crazy. We should not do this. It’s very dangerous."

His comment regarding electric airplanes came when he was comparing the electric airplane in importance to electric cars, solar energy and battery technology.

“The electric airplane isn’t necessary right now. Electric cars are important. Solar energy is important. Stationary storage of energy is important. These things are much more important than creating electric supersonic [airplanes]. It’s important that we accelerate the transition to sustainable energy.”


I would argue that, while not supersonic, the electric airplane is in fact very necessary in our efforts to transition to sustainable energy. According to a recent article posted on ThoughtCo.com, driving in a relatively fuel-efficient car (25–30 miles per gallon) usually generates fewer emissions than flying. For example, if you were to drive the 300 miles in a typical medium-sized car from Philadelphia to Boston, that driving would generate about 104 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) while flying that same distance on a commercial jet would produce some 184 kilograms of CO2 per passenger.


Electric airplanes offer big advantages over traditional commercial jets and other fuel-powered propeller airplanes. The absence of a gasoline powered engine allows the electric airplane to not only reduce emissions but also reduce noice pollution. Electric motors also cost much less to operate and maintain than traditional fuel-powered aircraft engines. This means electric airplanes provide lower costs for airlines resulting in cheaper airfares for passengers as well as affordable accessibility to general/private aviation.

There are roughly 40,000 flights over the US each day. Most of these are jet aircraft, which accounts for about 3 percent of annual carbon emissions as well as a big proportion of air pollutants like sulfur oxides and hydrocarbons (sources: FAA & EPA.) Replace these jets with electric powered planes and this will bring flight emissions down to zero.


The advancement of battery technology holds the key to a future of all electric flight. Currently jet fuel is superior to even the best batteries in storing energy especially in long-haul flights. Lithium-ion batteries are getting better but their size and weight still presents a challenge. Happily, Musk ranks battery technology high on his list in creating a future free from fossil fuels and this technology is a top area of research for electric aircraft developers.


Major industry players, research organizations and entrepreneurs are working on the development of an electric plane ranging from smaller electric and hybrid-electric planes to be used for flight training and urban air-taxis, to designs capable of flying regional air routes flown today by 30 passenger turboprop commuter aircraft. Some of the companies to watch are SunFlyer, Zumum Aero and Eviation Aircraft.

To dismiss the electric airplane as not being “necessary” is to give up on its ability to drastically change the aviation industry as we know it today. How will the future of travel look if flight becomes the affordable, quiet and clean transportation option? I would say the sky is not the limit but just the beginning.


By Jill Rutan Hoffman — Founder/CEO Path 2 Flight


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