On December 11th Vancouver based Harbour Air will test fly the world’s first all-electric plane for an all electric commercial airline. The converted 6 passenger de Havilland DHC-2 beaver will take off from from the middle arm of the Fraser River near Richmond British Columbia. In February of this year Harbour Air announced that it would be converting all of its 40 propeller-driven seaplanes to electric to make it the first emissions free all-electric airline.
This is revolutionary because air travel is notoriously harmful to the environment.
In October many of key components of their planes were installed, including electric motors
developed by magniX, a Seattle-based electric aviation company. These 750 horsepower electric motors have the high power to weight ratio required to operate an aircraft. In addition to the engine magniX has also developed inverters and a proprietary cooling system for their batteries.
These planes will be used for Harbour Air’s short haul flights (less than 100 miles). In total, Harbour Air flies more than 500,000 passengers on 30,000 commercial flights annually to destinations in the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Whistler, Seattle, Tofino, Salt Spring Island, the Sunshine Coast and Comox).
The airline has been carbon neutral since 2007, however, the decision to go all-electric is not just an environmental decision, it is also good for business. The company expects the planes pay for themselves in the coming years. Harbour Air is the perfect candidate for aviation electrification and their experience is sure to be a valuable business case for electric flight.
“If you look at a five-year lifecycle of operating a traditional gas engine, together with all the significant maintenance that’s required for that kind of engine because they’re so complex, and all of the fuel that’s burned, it is significantly cheaper to convert and operate an electric aircraft,” said Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX.
The price of electricity is far more stable than the price of fossil fuels. The company’s founder and CEO Greg McDougall will fly the test flight himself and he says he expects electrification to save the company money. “It’s just way cheaper to run electrified propulsion systems in aircraft in the long-run as the technology evolves,” he said. A side by side comparison reveals that a piston motor drive-train ranges in cost between $300 and $450 per operating hour while the electric drive-train is projected to cost only $12 per hour.
Rather than costing passengers more McDougall believes lower operating costs and technological improvements will eventually drive down the price of tickets. “We’re really confident that from an engineering point of view, there’s no issues there. I really don’t see much downside at all,” McDougall said adding, “at the end of the day there’s a financial and economic and environmental goal here, and those are the things that are really important to me.” They plan to start flying passengers once they get their certification sometime around 2022.
Harbour Air should be lauded for its decision to harness the power of electrification for zero-carbon transport, however, when it comes to mainstreaming electric air travel a host of challenges remain.