A study commissioned by the Netherlands to investigate the feasibility of electric aircraft has concluded commercial services by small, short-range e-planes could begin as early as 2026, reports Tony Harrington. The investigation focused on operations within the Netherlands, and between the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, the so-called ‘ABC Islands’ region. It concluded nine-seat electric aircraft, for example the Eviation Alice, could be operated by 2026, while 19-seat electric aircraft, such as Sweden’s Heart Aerospace ES-19, could be in service by 2030. But the report also makes clear that for electric aircraft to enter commercial service, airport and energy infrastructure would require significant upgrading. The Netherlands has committed to stepped decarbonisation of its air transport sector, through 2030 initiatives including a 15% cut in domestic flight emissions compared to 1990, electric taxiing of aircraft and the introduction of hybrid-electric planes up to 50 seats, transitioning by 2050 to zero emission flights on all domestic routes and fully-electric aircraft on flights of up to 500 kilometres.
To develop a framework for the introduction of electric aircraft, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management appointed Netherlands Airport Consultants (NACO), part of the Dutch-based global engineering consultancy Royal HaskoningDHV, and Royal NLR, the Netherlands Aerospace Centre, to explore technical, logistical, energy and financial requirements.
Their report, which has just been presented to the Netherlands House of Representatives, identified challenges including aircraft certification and battery capacity, ground infrastructure, sustainable energy sources and regulations governing the operation of electric aircraft. Multiple initiatives are already underway in the Netherlands, including Power-Up, a collaboration between four regional airports – Eindhoven, Rotterdam-The Hague, Groningen-Eelde and Maastricht-Aachen – to achieve short-range commercial flights with electric planes by 2026. The new study focused on the triangulated air routes connecting Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, which researchers deemed ideal for a detailed assessment of the infrastructure requirements and costs of e-aircraft on regional routes.
The flight distance between Aruba and Bonaire is 190 kilometres, while Bonaire-Curaçao is just 79 kilometres, and Curaçao-Aruba is 113 kilometres. Of this compact market, the study observed: “The point-to-point character of the connectivity, and at the same time the short distances, make it very suitable for the introduction of electric aircraft. The inter-island connections have great potential to be replaced by electric nine- and 19-seaters once the necessary infrastructure is there.”
Acknowledging that “such a transition does not happen overnight”, the study laid out a three-stage strategy to progressively introduce all-electric flights between the ABC islands, beginning with three nine-seat e-aircraft by 2026, one based on each island, supported by a 400-kilowatt charging station at each airport to provide up to 30 minutes of recharging per plane.
By 2030, three 19-seat aircraft would be added, again one per island, supported by an additional 900 kilowatt charging station in each location. This would increase to six the number of electric aircraft serving the ABC market – a nine-seat and a 19-seat plane based on each island, and a total of 1.3 megawatts of charging capacity at each of the airports. Based on 2019 traffic data, these aircraft would replace 50% of the fossil fuel-powered flights now serving the islands.
The final stage of the programme, to be enacted in 2035, would see a doubling of the 2030 e-aircraft fleet and charging facilities, with the introduction of three more nine-seat and three more 19-seat planes, providing the ABC market with all-electric air services operated by 12 aircraft. Each island would host four electric planes – two nine-seaters and two 19-seaters – supported by four charging stations with combined capacity to deliver up to 2.6 megawatts of power during peak periods. That power would be provided either by solar panels or by wind power turbines.
The study concluded that airport energy infrastructure would require significant upgrading to accommodate electric aircraft.
“Charging an aircraft needs to be done swiftly in order to be competitive with regular turnaround times. Therefore, fast chargers are essential for electric aviation,” it said. “The energy supply for the charging stations should be sufficient and robust. During peak hours, enough power should be available to be able to charge multiple aircraft at the same time. Moreover, electric flight can only be zero-emission if the energy is sustainable too. If solar panels or wind energy are used, the peaks of the energy harvest need to be stored. In the early years, converting fully to renewable energy for the amount that is needed is challenging. The whole airport energy system including energy sourcing will need revision.”
Cost was also identified as a significant impediment to the introduction of electric aviation from 2025, unless some financial relief or incentive was provided.
“The ramp-up years might not be economically attractive for airlines or other aviation businesses to implement new aircraft technologies,” says the report. “The risk could result in long waiting time before ordering. Therefore, governments could incentivise the acquisition and operation of electric aircraft and required/associated infrastructure by offering supporting schemes or grants for airlines and airports. Taxation of aviation fuel or exemption of taxes can be used to either create a level playing field or stimulate the business case for electric aviation.”
Esther Kromhout, Director of NACO, one of the research partners, said: “Our study makes a valuable contribution to the discussion about the future of electric flying, and its role in making aviation more sustainable. The roadmap shows what is possible in the near future (2026-2030) based on current technical developments.”
Martin Nagelsmit, Head of the Sustainability and Environment Department at Royal NLR, said there was “not one holy grail” to address the climate impact of current aircraft. “In addition to electric flying, even more is needed to make aviation more sustainable,” he said. “To adequately tackle the entire spectrum, we must focus on various solutions such as hydrogen propulsion, sustainable aviation fuels and even more efficient aircraft and operations.”
Top image: The nine-seat Eviation Alice electric aircraft could be in service by 2026