First commercial hybrid-electric flights expected by 2032
The first 50-seat hybrid-electric aircraft will enter fare-paying passenger service by 2032, according to a new report from Roland Berger.
The conclusion is based on input from experts such as Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet; Ashish Kumar, Founder and CEO of Zunum; Andreas Thellmann, Project Executive for Urban Air Mobility at Airbus; Professor Ric Parker, Chairman of the Board at Clean Sky Joint Undertaking; and Professor Pat Wheeler, Head of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at Nottingham University.
Roland Berger's report forecasts that the early 2030s is also the time when original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will bring their next major narrowbody aircraft into service, meaning they will need to decide soon whether to invest in new aircraft with conventional propulsion systems, which may quickly become obsolete, or take the leap to bring new electric technology to market.
Further, the report warns that left unchecked, aviation's share of greenhouse gas emissions could reach 24% by 2050. Electrical propulsion, if it becomes the norm, offers an opportunity to constrain aviation's CO2 emissions to current levels of between two and three percent.
The pace of development in the field of electrical propulsion is gaining speed, with roughly 100 different electric aircraft programmes in development worldwide – up 30% since 2017, and more than double the number in 2016.
Though technological and regulatory hurdles remain, once overcome, electrical propulsion will impact company business models, aircraft architecture and even city planning, Roland Berger notes.
Closing the technology gap
To make electric propulsion mainstream, the industry must close the technology gap to electrical propulsion, which is primarily defined by the power output required for flight, Roland Berger says. Output varies by platform type, which include general aviation aircraft, urban air taxis, regional aircraft and large commercial aircraft.
The report finds: “The technologies required for power output for general aviation are broadly available today, but what’s needed for electrical propulsion in large commercial aircraft and even regional aviation must still be developed. Challenges include battery technology, electric motors, generators (for hybrid-electric architectures), high voltage wiring and power electronics, among others.”
It adds: “Technology is progressing quickly on one front: The cost of a lithium-ion battery pack is expected to decline by 60% by 2030, in part due to capacity growth for batteries used by the automotive industry. However, with so much attention on the automotive industry, the aerospace industry will need to put pressure on developers to make lithium-ion batteries that are better suited for the higher gravimetric density needed in aerospace.”
Regulation would also need to incentivise early retirement and replacement of today's fleet, the report notes, although such a move that could have dramatic repercussions for the aircraft leasing industry.