Electric aircrafts have considerable potential in reducing emissions of aviation and in service on difficult routes

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Electric buses have already made a breakthrough in urban transport, and the number of electric cars on Finnish roads has increased rapidly. The electrification of aviation is no longer something for the distant future, and the concrete manifestation of the visions is already close at hand. If plans of the manufacturers of electric planes bear fruit, the first commercial flights using electric planes will be flown five years from now. According to a new study, electric planes could offer a fast and low-emission option especially on routes across the Baltic Sea or in domestic cross traffic utilising Finland's small airports.

While electric cars and buses are an effective way to reduce emissions from road traffic, electric planes have much potential both in reducing emissions from aviation, and in shortening travel time on routes that are difficult using existing transport connections. For example, on routes over the Baltic Sea to Sweden, electric planes could be a low-emission and fast alternative to the relatively slow car ferries with high emissions.

In travel time and low emissions, rail services would be the main competitor of electric planes among current forms of transport on domestic routes, but in Finland, fast rail connections mainly operate from south to north, between Helsinki and larger cities. However, on cross-traffic routes, current transport connections are slow. Consequently, electric planes could offer a new, fast, and relatively low-emission travel option on these routes.

Electric planes designed for short routes are smaller and quieter than traditional passenger planes, so it would be possible to use airports with short runways near residential areas. Finland has many small airports that are not used very much, for which electric planes could offer fast transport connections to areas that are not served by existing flight connections, and which take a long time to reach using other transport connections.

Increasing renewable electricity production improves the status of electric forms of transport when emissions are compared

Although no direct carbon dioxide emissions are caused by driving an electric car or flying in an electric plane, the indirect emissions caused by the use of electric vehicles should be considered when comparing them with cars and planes powered by fossil fuels. The most important of these are the emissions that come from manufacturing and charging the batteries. The amount of these indirect emissions greatly depends on the carbon intensity of the electricity used to charge the battery.

The indirect carbon dioxide emissions of a typical electric car are already well under half of the emissions of an average internal combustion engine car under the carbon intensity of Finland's current electricity production. With an electric plane, the carbon dioxide emissions from the production and charging of the battery, when calculated according to the carbon intensity of Finland's current electricity production per passenger kilometre, would be about a third of that of existing aircraft, considerably lower than with a car with an internal combustion engine, and at about the same level as with a diesel-powered bus.

As renewable energy production increases, the carbon intensity of electricity production will decrease, further improving the status of electric vehicles in comparison of carbon dioxide emissions. For example, in Sweden, where most of the country's electricity is already produced using renewable forms of energy and nuclear energy, emissions from the charging of electric vehicles are very small, and when the emissions from the manufacture of batteries are considered, the emissions are still just a fraction of those of vehicles powered by fossil fuels. On the other hand, in a country such as Estonia, where electricity production is still largely based on fossil energy, emissions from electric vehicles could exceed those of vehicles using fossil fuels in the current situation.

 

Read more in a publication on the subject:
Jenu, S., Baumeister, S., Pippuri-Mäkeläinen, J., Manninen, A., & Paakkinen, M. (2021). The emission reduction potential of electric transport modes in Finland. Environmental Research Letters. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ac2440
 

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Marko Paakkinen

Marko Paakkinen

Research Team Leader
Samppa Jenu

Samppa Jenu

Research Scientist
Research expertise