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Are Electric Airplanes the Future?

Written by Luke Burgess
Posted January 3, 2020

The debate over climate change has turned eyes to the sky.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, air travel is responsible for 2% to 3% of total domestic carbon emissions in America. They say U.S. air travel consumes about 3.5 quadrillion BTUs of jet fuel, which produces 175 million metric tons of CO2 per year.

To put that into perspective, the EPA says a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year. So the emissions produced from U.S. air travel is equivalent to about 38 million cars.

(And, if you were wondering, there are about 276 million vehicles total in the U.S. including passenger cars, motorcycles, trucks, buses, and other vehicles.)

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Driven by European media campaigns (KLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ "Fly Responsibly" campaign) and environmental politics of voices like Greta Thunberg, climate change advocates all over the world began heavily pressuring their governments for stricter emission controls on airlines last year.

There was even a trend of “flight shaming” that sprouted up in late 2019. Social media users (particularly from Europe) began actively shaming celebrities and other famous people for what they called irresponsible air travel in hopes that it would prompt others to shun airlines for the planet's sake.

But the rising awareness of air travel pollution didn't only result in corporate crowd pandering and ego-building virtue signaling. Rising awareness has also provided money for researchers to develop commercially viable alternatives for using aviation fuel.

Among some of the technology being developed last year included using liquid hydrogen as aviation fuel, which would drastically cut down on carbon emissions and increase efficiency.

Now, even the U.S. government is involved in developing greener airplanes. Last month the DOE announced $55 million in funding to develop electric aviation engine technology and powertrain systems.

The DOE is funding the development of the technology through its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

ARPA-E was formed as a part of Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 and modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). What DARPA does for military technology, ARPA-E does for energy technology: It uses public funds to invest in high-risk technologies research that wouldn't otherwise be funded.

New Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said of the funding in a statement:

Every American should have reliable, affordable, and efficient transportation, and the electrification of aviation systems has the potential to transform the way aircraft consume and use energy. These programs will focus on innovative research and development for flight systems that increase the overall efficiency of aircraft and have the potential to reduce aircraft fuel consumption and emissions.

So are electric airplanes the future?

Well, they're actually the present.

Electric airplanes already exist.

Private companies have been developing electric planes for years. In late 2019, NASA even unveiled its own electric airplane that has been under development for four years.

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Named the X-57 Maxwell, this Italian-made Tecnam P2006T twin-engine propeller plane has been converted to use an all-electric power system with 14 motors that are powered by specially designed lithium-ion batteries. The plane, however, hasn't flown yet. It's still several month away from its first test flight.

Yet the electric planes that have been and currently are being developed are limited to today's technology. That allows only very small passenger aircraft like NASA's X-57 Maxwell, which can carry four to six passengers at most.

A large commercial passenger aircraft like a 747 can hold between 400 and 500 people. And the technology to create an electric 747 simply doesn't exist yet. But that's what the DOE hopes is possible.

We have to remember the technology that allows electric cars is still relatively new — and it's still not perfected. So we really can't expect too much right now from electric airplane technology.

And, yes, agencies like ARPA-E do spend a lot of money on high-risk projects like electric aircraft. Since 2009, ARPA-E has provided $2 billion for over 800 energy technology projects. But they also actually produce results. Since inception, ARPA-E funding is responsible for 346 energy technology patents, the formation of 76 companies, and $2.9 billion in new investment from the private sector.

So I think there's still good reason to invest in the technology. Because while an electric 747 is probably quite far off, more research into making electric motors more efficient is valuable to everyone, and there's no telling what new things could be discovered along the way.

Until next time,
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Luke Burgess

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As an editor at Energy and Capital, Luke’s analysis and market research reach hundreds of thousands of investors every day. Luke is also a contributing editor of Angel Publishing’s Bubble and Bust Report newsletter. There, he helps investors in leveraging the future supply-demand imbalance that he believes could be key to a cyclical upswing in the hard asset markets. For more on Luke, go to his editor’s page.

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