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Avinor's Alpha Electro aircraft
Airport group Avinor is currently flying an electric aircraft produced by Slovenian manufacturer Pipistrel

"Aviation can be more sustainable than road and rail" says head of Norway's switch to electric planes

Norway aims to replace fuel-guzzling jets with electric planes on all domestic flights by 2040 as part of its drive to fight climate change. Olaf Mosvold Larsen of state airport group Avinor told Dezeen how they plan to do it.

By switching to electric planes, "emissions can be eliminated while emissions from expensive and extensive infrastructure projects such as tunnels and bridges will be reduced," said Larsen, who manages the carbon reduction programme at Avinor.

"Norway is a vast country and, in the remote districts, short-haul flights are already more important than roads for many purposes," he said. "The runways are already in place. In that sense aviation can be more sustainable than both road and rail."

The technology is already in place to replace jets with electric and hybrid planes on short flights, Larsen believes, although major advances in battery technology are required before long-haul flights can be electrified.

Aircraft design will change radically as manufacturers experiment with different propulsion systems, he predicted.

"There are more than 200 relatively serious electric aircraft projects out there today, both fixed wing, rotary wing and tilt wing," he said, citing NASA's experimental X-57, which features 14 electric motors integrated into its wings. "I think we will see a lot of different designs in the future."

Read on for an edited transcript of the interview with Olaf Mosvold Larsen:

Marcus Fairs: What is Avinor and what is your role there?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: Avinor is responsible for the 43 state-owned airports in Norway, as well as the air navigation services in Norwegian airspace. I am working at the head office in Oslo, and am responsible for overseeing and coordinating our carbon reduction efforts. It is a well-established fact that we have to reduce and, as soon as possible, eliminate carbon emissions to avoid the risks associated with irreversible global warming.

All sectors in society, including aviation, must contribute. Over the last decade we have been working on several projects at our airports and in the aviation industry as a whole, and to us it makes sense to coordinate and communicate them under one umbrella.

Marcus Fairs: You aim to electrify all domestic flights by 2040. Why and how will you do this?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: We have been monitoring the development of electric flight for several years, but Airbus' flight across the English Channel in summer 2015, with their little fully electric aircraft E-Fan 1.0, was the main eye opener for us.

Given the very short distances as the crow flies between many of the Norwegian airports, we realised that this development could also be relevant for us.

Since 2015 we have investigated the status and future possibilities of electric flight, and have also acquired Norway's first electric aircraft. Our vision that by 2040 all domestic flights in Norway will be electrified is based on information from aircraft and aircraft motor manufacturers.

By 2040 all domestic flights in Norway will be electrified

Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Safran, Siemens, NASA and numerous startups are working on solutions for electrification of aviation. Several airlines are also very interested, including Scandinavian Airlines and the regional carrier in Norway, Widerøe.

Airbus's project E-Fan X is to develop technologies that can fly 100 passengers 1,000 kilometres in a hybrid-electric solution. Norway's network of airports and huge number of relatively short flights with few passengers is in our opinion ideal as a first market. We are fully aware that with current technology it is not possible in all countries on the globe, but it can work for us.

Marcus Fairs: Will you develop planes yourself, or in partnership with manufacturers?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: We own and operate airports and are responsible for providing air-navigation services. We do not have plans to develop aircraft alone or in partnership with others. We will however, be responsible for making sure that there is an adequate system for charging the aircraft at our airports, and we do for sure see a role for us as a driver for zero- and low carbon solutions in aviation.

We will also advise the Norwegian government on incentives and policy instruments to speed up the transition to electrified aviation in Norway.

Marcus Fairs: Norway has lots of remote areas cut off by mountains and sea. Can electric aircraft connect them more sustainably than roads, railways or sea routes?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: Norway is a vast country and, in the remote districts, short-haul flights are already more important than roads for many purposes. There are not and will never be rail services.

The awareness of electric flight is picking up across the world

Tail-pipe emissions can be eliminated with electric flight while emissions from expensive and extensive infrastructure projects such as tunnels and bridges will be reduced. The runways are already in place. In that sense aviation can be more sustainable than both road and rail, but I think we in reality will see a combination.

Marcus Fairs: Norway seems to be ahead of the curve regarding sustainability in general and electrification in particular, with programmes to electrify road transport and shipping. How does your project fit into that?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: Our project fits very well into the general efforts in Norway to electrify the transport sector. The Norwegian government has already committed to a goal that by 2025 all new passenger cars and light commercial vehicles should be zero emission. This also applies to the many ferries plying the Norwegian fjords.

There are already some electric and hybrid-electric ferries in operation, and I think more than 70 are commissioned. The general public acceptance of electric vehicles could be relevant for electric flight, but most importantly electric aviation has been discussed by the Norwegian government and the relevant ministries are well informed.

Marcus Fairs: What other countries are doing comparable projects?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: The awareness of electric flight is for sure picking up across the world, and I am aware of similar projects in Scotland, Sweden, the Netherlands, the Pacific Northwest in the US, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and New Zealand, to mention some. There are probably more and it is hard to compare the projects.

I do think however that the high profile of our project here in Norway is unique. We also find it encouraging that electrification of aviation is high on the political agenda in other countries, Sweden and Netherlands included.

Marcus Fairs: Are viable electric planes here already? Or are they still an unproven technology?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: Well, we are already flying a two-seater electric aircraft. We bought it off the shelf from the very innovative Slovenian manufacturer Pipistrel.

But the current aircrafts available are small with limited range and the model we have is originally made for training pilots. However development is picking up and we expect to see more 2- and 4-6 seaters entering the market in 2020 and 2021.

To reduce development cost so called retrofits - existing aircraft equipped with electric motors - will fly during 2019 and 2020, and the drivetrains will probably also be integrated in more novel designs over the next coming years. Around 2025 we expect to see the first electric or hybrid electric aircraft in regular commercial traffic in Norway, but we expect them to be small (less than 19 seats) and have limited range. They will possibly be retrofits.

One should not hide the fact that we are in the early stages of development of these aircraft and it will be truly exciting to monitor the development. There are no major technical hurdles for small electric aircraft, but projects have to be financed, the aircraft must be certified, and the whole ecosystem of aviation must be ready.

Marcus Fairs: What are the design challenges for electric planes?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: The holy grail for fully electric flight is lighter batteries. To ensure sufficient range and capacity, the designers are "compensating" today's heavy batteries with hybrid electric architectures or range extenders, in the meaning of turbo generators that can charge the batteries in flight. There are also some very interesting hydrogen fuel cell projects out there.

We expect to see the first electric or hybrid electric aircraft in 2025

On the other hand, electrification of aviation opens up the design envelope for aircraft. Electric motors are smaller and lighter than gas turbines, and that is one of the reasons one can see some quite innovative designs out there, designs that can also improve the operational capacity of the aircraft in terms of runway requirements and so forth. NASA's X-57 is one of the interesting examples.

Marcus Fairs: What about other types of aircraft such as drones, tilt-rotor planes or even individual propulsion packs?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: There are more than 200 relatively serious electric aircraft projects out there today, both fixed wing, rotary wing and tilt wing. I think we will see a lot of different designs in the future, developed for the purpose they should serve.

Marcus Fairs: What about pilotless planes?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: There is a lot of talk about autonomous or pilotless aircraft. Technologically it is already feasible. But aviation is an extremely risk averse business, and it will take some time until we can board an autonomous civil passenger flight.

Marcus Fairs: What is the next step in terms of propulsion technology? Could solar power or ion power ever be viable? Or is there some other technological solution on the horizon?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: If I knew, I would be rich… I think it is fair to say that with today's photovoltaic and battery technology, solar planes in civil air traffic seem quite a few years away, although the truly impressive Solar Impulse project could make you dream. Ion power looks like magic, but who knows?

Marcus Fairs: Electric planes are only sustainable if the electricity is generated in a sustainable way. Is this the case in Norway?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: We are blessed with a lot of weather and nature, and in a year with normal precipitation Norway has an abundance of hydropower. And wind power is also picking up. We have something like 98 per cent renewable electricity production and we even heat our homes with electricity. That is also one of the reasons electrification of the transport sector really makes sense for us.

Marcus Fairs: Could electric aircraft one day fly long haul?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: With new battery chemistries electric planes could develop in the near future and take a fair share of regional air traffic. For battery electric aircraft to fly long haul, we will have to see some kind of "revolution" in storage of renewable electricity.

Marcus Fairs: What about hybrid technologies and biofuels? How do they fit in and are they really that sustainable?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: There are two takes on hybrid planes: those with electric motors only and a turbo generator or fuel cell to charge the batteries as you fly; and those with electric motors plus some kind of fossil-fuel engine. In both cases sustainable biofuels fit neatly in and are currently contributing to build the bridge into zero or low emission flights. The sustainability of biofuels is extremely dependent on the biomass and feedstock.

Marcus Fairs: Surely biofuels also put co2 into the atmosphere. So what's the benefit?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: There are good biofuels and bad biofuels. Good biofuels reduce emission significantly: in the EU they must reduce the emissions by at least 60 per cent compared with fossil fuels to be classified as "sustainable". Biofuels with 90 per cent carbon reduction are available. Bad biofuels can however be worse for the global climate than fossil fuels.

Bad biofuels can be worse for the global climate than fossil fuels

Sustainable biofuels will be relevant in aviation for decades to come on long-haul flights, and also in the thousands of conventional shorter haul aircraft already out there.

The benefit of biofuels is that instead of pumping millions-of-years-old carbon from fossil fuels into the atmosphere – and thus disturbing the very delicate balance of the atmosphere supporting our existence on Earth – biofuels contribute with "fresh" CO2 that will be taken up by the photosynthesis in the plants and trees again when they grow.

Marcus Fairs: Some environmentalists think the solution is for people to stop flying. What do you think of that? Can flying ever be sustainable?

Olav Mosvold Larsen: It is extremely difficult to foresee a world without the possibility for humankind to move fast over relatively long distances. Today's preferred technology - and the only technology - for that purpose is aviation.

We will continue fly in future and from our point of view it is possible to fly sustainably, with electric or hybrid electric on short haul and by sustainable jet biofuel on longer haul. The technologies are already available, but must be developed and offered at a sensible cost to the customers relative to fossil technologies. One question I think it is fair to ask is: can we afford not to develop and utilise the sustainable technologies of the future?