In August this year, Greta Thunberg arrived in New York after a two-week journey sailing across the Atlantic on a zero-emissions yacht. The 16-year-old climate activist refuses to fly because of the carbon emissions produced by planes, but imagine if she could hop on a flight, guilt- and fossil-fuel free. That’s the ambition with electric aircraft, battery-powered planes which produce zero carbon emissions - and significantly less noise than gas turbine engines.
The batteries are some way off being able to get Greta from Sweden to the United States, but there are plans for short-haul electric flights to be in operation by 2025. At present, batteries can handle trips of up to 500km, which means that shorter routes, arounds the Nordics for example, could soon be flown exclusively by electric aircraft. It’s a solution to the aviation industry’s biggest problem and Swedavia, Sweden’s largest airport operator, is playing a key role in guaranteeing the 2025 deadline is met.
“We have to get rid of fossil fuels no matter what,” says Henrik Littorin, Senior Analyst and head of Swedavia’s work regarding electric aviation. “Our goal is to be so prepared at our airports that we can welcome electric aircraft as soon as they are on the market.”
Photo: Henrik Littorin
Swedavia will make it possible for electric aircraft to land, take off, charge and overhaul at all of its ten airports - powered entirely by green energy. And it’s not wasting any time. In part, because it has no time to waste. In February 2019, the Swedish government published its climate policy framework, in it outlining plans for all domestic flights to be fossil-fuel free by 2030.
It’s a goal that was put forth by Sweden’s entire aviation industry. Swedavia is on track to eliminate carbon emissions from its on-the-ground operations by the end of 2020 and already uses biofuel for all of its domestic business flights. Swedish domestic airline BRA and Scandinavian airline SAS have also made marked efforts to reduce emissions. Earlier this year, SAS took the next step and signed a joint agreement with Airbus to explore the potential of hybrid-electric systems for large-scale commercial use.
‘Aircraft are only part of the equation’
While Sweden aims to replace fossil fuels with a combination of biofuels and electricity, neighbouring Norway has announced that all of its domestic flights will be electric by 2040. It’s generated some healthy competition between the Nordic countries but more importantly opened avenues for collaboration.
One such collaboration is already underway at Swedavia’s Åre Östersund Airport, which from summer 2020 will be used as a test area for electric aircraft. At present, the project is centred around ensuring the airport has the technical and electrical capacity to handle electric flights. Swedavia already has permission for the aircraft to travel the 175km between Åre Östersund and Røros Airport in Norway, a route which covers some fairly treacherous terrain and has scarcely any other air traffic.
Photo: Peter Fahlén
“It’s a meteorologically and topographically interesting area for this type of testing because you have to fly over the mountains and have all kinds of weather to test in,” says Åre Östersund Airport Director Peter Fahlén. “There’s also the possibility to test flights from point to point starting in Norway and flying directly to Åre Östersund. It’s different to other testing areas today where you set off from one point and then return to it.”
Test areas like Åre Östersund are essential to the development of electric aircraft, says Anders Forslund, CEO of Swedish-based Heart Aerospace which plans to deliver a nineteen-passenger electric aircraft by 2025. Forslund explains that aviation is highly regulated and certification agencies have strict safety standards. Electric aircraft have few moving parts and aren't powered by volatile, combustible fluids, so have the potential to be much safer and more reliable than their fossil fuel counterparts. But they need to prove it beyond all doubt -- and so first must undergo several years of testing.
“Aircraft are only part of the equation," Forslund tells The Local. "Electrifying the airport is a prerequisite for electrifying the air. If there’s not the infrastructure to support the electric aircraft, then the aircraft themselves are useless. We need places to charge them. So we need airports to develop the charging infrastructure.”
‘We will make sure we can handle it’
Heart Aerospace is the offspring of the Swedish Innovation Agency-funded project ELISE (Elektrisk Lufttransport i Sverige or Electric Aviation in Sweden), a collaboration between five Swedish universities, the Civil Aviation Administration, RISE Viktoria research institute and several other actors. Swedavia sits on the advisory board of ELISE, in part to keep abreast of developments in the electric aviation industry and in part to outline its own requirements.
“We try to follow the developments really closely because we need to know what’s happening and the timeline, so that we can stick to the same timeline. So if something happens even before 2025, we will make sure we can handle it,” Littorin tells The Local. “We also need to make requirements and say if something won’t work at the airport so we have to think of an alternative solution.”
At present, Swedavia is getting to grips with the amount of electricity that will be required to charge the planes. It’s a complex challenge that requires establishing how much investment will be needed to install the right infrastructure coupled with ongoing discussions with Sweden’s energy companies.
“We need to cooperate with the energy companies because we have a national grid, regional grids and local grids with different ownership,” explains Littorin. “So we need to find out what they are doing in the years to come. If they need to build something new, what will it cost and do we need to be part of that?”
Photo: Heart Aerospace
The biggest challenge, though, he says, may be handling the amount of energy required in the thirty or so minutes it takes to charge an electric aircraft.
“We are looking into how we can spread the energy needed over 24 hours. It might be that we will use some kind of battery or energy storage. Kind of like the power bank you use for your mobile phone. So like a large container or rack and then you just feed the power bank with energy all the time at a very slow place. Then the power bank will always be full of energy and you just plug in the aircraft.”
Preparing the airports for electric flights is a mammoth task but one Swedavia knows is essential to a fossil-fuel free future. Littorin, for one, is determined to find solutions that will make electric flights a reality in the Nordics and beyond - and soon.
“We need to start somewhere. We cannot wait for the perfect solution. We need to electrify as much as possible as quickly as possible. If we can develop both aircraft and really good solutions for airport infrastructure, we can use it to increase development in other parts of the world.”
This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Swedavia.