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The man who lost faith in electric aviation


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The man who lost faith in electric aviation


Harbour Air Pilot and CEO Greg McDougall flies the world's first all-electric commercial aircraft during a test flight in a DHC-2 Beaver from Vancouver International Airport South Terminal on Dec. 10, 2019.

Sat Dec 30, 2023 - The Globe and Mail
by Nathan Vanderklippe


'It is at best capable of “carrying a pilot and his underwear,”

For a little while at least, Dominique Spragg saw the future of aviation, and that future was electric.

He was there for the 2019 first flight of a Beaver seaplane that Harbour Air, the Vancouver-based airline, retrofitted to lift off on battery power. It was a flight heralded as “the start of the third era in aviation – the electric age.”

The Pacific Northwest has become a global centre for developing battery-powered planes in the shadow of the jet-powered airliners assembled by Boeing in the region. The electric Beaver is in the running to be the first electric aircraft to reach commercial service.

Mr. Spragg, a Canadian aerospace engineer with a career in operations management and strategic aviation consulting, was an important champion of the effort. He served as chairman of both Eviation Aircraft and magniX, cousin companies in Washington State developing an electric airplane and battery-powered motors, including the ones used in the electric Beaver. He was part of the selection process for a $350-million sustainable aviation technology fund under Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. He has examined the potential for hybrid engine technology with Vancouver Island’s Viking Air and aviation giant Pratt & Whitney.

“Five years ago we were all optimists and hoping and figuring that where cars could go, airplanes would follow,” Mr. Spragg said in an interview.

But he now believes many of the battery-powered flight efforts to date amount to “green theatre.”

“We can make it work, but it’s going to be limited.”

Take that first experimental eBeaver, which has been the testbed for Harbour Air, where it made 78 flights. It is at best capable of “carrying a pilot and his underwear,” Mr. Spragg said. A second eBeaver, which is expected to begin retrofitting late next year in hopes of achieving certification for commercial flight, may be able to carry two or three passengers – down from the six passengers a gas-powered Beaver can transport. Even new-build aircraft like the one Eviation is designing are expected to carry just nine passengers with barely enough range to connect Vancouver with Portland.

“Physics is not a friend of electric aviation,” Mr. Spragg said. He no longer holds any formal roles with Eviation or magniX.

“There was a tendency in the beginning to whitewash these inconvenient problems as, ‘we’ll solve those later,’” he said. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure the solutions are readily at hand.”

What Mr. Spragg found has illustrated the magnitude of the problem in trimming aviation’s carbon footprint in a climate-constrained world.

Aviation today represents roughly 2.5 per cent of global emissions. But aviation’s percentage is likely to expand as air travel continues to grow and other sectors decarbonize, creating an urgency to find solutions. By some estimates, aviation will represent 27 per cent of emissions by 2050.

Much of it comes down to energy and weight. Jet fuel packs enormous power per pound. The best batteries have nowhere close. Bombardier director of research and technology Benoit Breault has said a five-fold improvement is needed before batteries can be used in aviation.

The heft of batteries can be more easily overcome by an electric car, which needs only to propel their weight across land. “When you have to lift them up to 10,000 feet, it becomes quite a burden – and it’s not like fuel that you burn off as you fly,” said Jayant Mukhopadhaya, a Berlin-based aviation expert with the International Council on Clean Transportation, or ICCT, a non-profit research group.

Electric airplanes likely have a role to play in short-hop flights, including those operated by Harbour Air and others in places such as Norway, where aircraft can speed across narrow fjords.

But worldwide, the ICCT estimates, electric aircraft are suited for carrying only 0.03 per cent of all air-passenger kilometres. Advances in hydrogen technology may power some larger aircraft on shorter routes, although that is likely to create its own difficulties, since hydrocarbons represent an important source for hydrogen.

Battery power, however, is not likely to provide “decarbonization on any reasonable scale,” Mr. Mukhopadhaya said.

It’s possible that aircraft capable of electric vertical take-off and landing will create new forms of flight, perhaps by ferrying people above crowded roadways.

Billy Nolen, the former acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, calls it “the great airspace race.” Mr. Nolen is now chief safety officer for California-based Archer Aircraft, which is developing a four-passenger Midnight electric aircraft with investments from Stellantis, Boeing and United Airlines. Designed for trips of 30 to 80 kilometres, it looks like a mix between a drone and a helicopter, and can be “a significant contributor to decongestion,” Mr. Nolen said.

Besides, he added, today’s electric aircraft are “as bad as it gets.” With battery technology improving at the rate of 5 per cent to 7 per cent a year, progress is coming fast.

Such craft, however, are likely to compete with cars for urban trips rather than displacing kerosene-fuelled airplanes for longer flights – and it’s not clear they will offer any energy efficiency gains over to the electric vehicles they will wing past.

Airlines and manufacturers have begun experimenting with sustainable aviation fuel, which is made from renewable sources for longer-haul flights. Another option is e-kerosene, a fuel synthesized from hydrogen and carbon dioxide that is, at the moment, many times more expensive to make than conventional jet fuel.

Hybrid technology may also modestly reduce emissions; Airbus said it may be able to trim fuel consumption by 5 per cent using electricity to augment jet propulsion.

But even a hybrid system will require additional aircraft electrification.

And it’s in that way that the engineers of the Pacific Coast may bend the future of aviation.

“Most technologies were developed in small aircraft first,” said Erika Holtz, who oversees the electrification program for Harbour Air.

Because it does not require an entirely new airframe, the eBeaver stands to be among the first electric aircraft to prepare the technology for regular flight and for the regulatory regimes to certify it. That process has already taken more time than anticipated; Ms. Holtz now hopes the eBeaver will finish its ground and flight testing by the end of 2025. How long it will take for regulators to sign off is not yet clear.

“A lot of it has to do with charting a new path in certification that’s never been charted before,” she said. Much work remains to be done. For example: “We still haven’t defined, what is a battery module?” Ms. Holtz said.

She remains optimistic that Harbour Air, the biggest seaplane operator on the continent, can convert 90 per cent of its fleet to battery power within a decade.

Doing so, she said, is important.

“Prove the electrification side of it, and then it could be used in hybrid technology in larger aircraft. It’s a stepping stone. It’s learning to walk before you run.”

MagniX is working with Nasa to partly electrify another Canadian aircraft – a DeHavilland Dash 7 from Yellowknife-based Air Tindi. They expect that program to deliver a “50-per-cent fuel savings on a 500-mile mission on a 50-seat” aircraft, said Ben Loxton, a vice-president with magniX on the Nasa program.

“And that can be done with today’s technology.”

Some of that technology is moving quickly. The batteries magniX uses have doubled in capacity in the past few years. A half-decade ago, electric flight seemed fanciful. Now it is plausible.

“Some of it is showing what the art of the possible is,” said Riona Armesmith, chief technology officer at magniX. Do that, and “the world kind of goes, ‘okay, this isn’t totally crazy. This is viable.’ You have to start somewhere.”

Some of the electric surprises have been happy ones. The first eBeaver, for example, has revealed itself to be a unique bird.

A pilot typically sets the throttles on a gas-powered Beaver to 62 per cent to keep the 2½ tonne Beaver in level flight. When the eBeaver test pilot moved the throttle to that position, he reported “we’re going awfully fast for cruise here,” Ms. Holtz recalled. A gas Beaver usually cruises at about 170 kilometres an hour. The eBeaver hit 220. To cruise at 170 k/h, it only needs 41 per cent of maximum power.

The Beaver is no aerodynamic wonder. Engineers call it a “snowplow.”

The eBeaver, however, uses a newer, more efficient propeller. Its electric engine needs to scoop less air for cooling, making it more streamlined.

“We got a pretty significant improvement in performance, said Ms. Holtz. That “is fundamentally where we went from being non-viable to viable.”

Flying an eBeaver from Vancouver to Victoria is vastly different from a trans-Pacific flight on electricity, and there is to date little indication that it will help the aviation industry writ large navigate climate change.

Still, it may keep a Canadian icon in the air.

First flown in 1947, the DHC-2 Beaver remains a workhorse of the skies, a plane called one of the country’s most important engineering achievements. Batteries, Mr. Loxton believes, will keep them aloft.

One day, he said, the Beaver “will be 100 years old – and it will be electric.”

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