Planes, trains and automobiles ... 

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF WHISTLER AIR - GOING GREEN Whistler Air's parent company is embarking on what is believed to be a world first, adding an electric plane to its fleet-a zero-emission aircraft powered by a 750-horsepower electric motor.
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF WHISTLER AIR
  • GOING GREEN Whistler Air's parent company is embarking on what is believed to be a world first, adding an electric plane to its fleet-a zero-emission aircraft powered by a 750-horsepower electric motor.

Oh, and boats as well.

It's no surprise the world's transportation sector is a major contributor to carbon emissions and thus to our current climate crisis. The global commercial aviation sector alone produced 859 million tonnes of CO2 in 2017—fully two per cent of the over 40 billion tonnes of CO2 produced annually by humans.

Despite being the most fuel-efficient way of moving goods, far ahead of road or air, the shipping industry contributes a comparable 2.1 per cent with its 950 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Despite continued reliance on dirty diesel, ships built since 2013 tend to be more carbon-efficient, but the industry still requires serious improvements in lowering emissions.

One obvious advancement is all-electric vessels for recreation or on short-haul routes, or electric hybrids on multi-motor larger vessels that would allow engagement of electric motors in place of one or more diesel engines in certain situations. Scandinavia currently leads in development and use of this technology, but many are looking, and even B.C. Ferries recently announced the debut of hybrid-electric ferries on two routes by 2020, four by 2022. These "Island Class" ferries will carry 47 vehicles and up to 300 passengers and crew, feature wide vehicle lanes, dedicated pedestrian paths, and bicycle parking spaces.

Meanwhile, the race is on to launch the world's first commercial all-electric air route. One contender for this honour is Vancouver's Harbour Air, which announced in March it would begin testing an electrically retrofitted de Havilland Beaver aircraft by this November, with hopes of carrying passengers between Vancouver and the Island by 2022. Harbour Air's 40-plus seaplane fleet currently moves 500,000 passengers per year between 12 destinations within a 160-kilometre-or-less range. "We're in this rather unique position of having short stage lengths and single-engine aircraft that require a lot less energy," said Harbour Air CEO Greg McDougall, comparing his planes to the larger ones of other operators. "We started doing some math and working with engineers and figured out that it was actually entirely doable with the technology that exists today—although with a limited range and limited payload."

Going toe-to-toe with Harbour Air is Israel-based Eviation. Last week, at the 53rd Paris Air Show—the world's most important such event and a showcase for new aviation technology—the company revealed its first full-scale electric commuter plane; "Alice" targets what the industry calls busy "middle-mile" commutes—routes like Oslo to Trondheim in Norway, San Jose to San Diego in the U.S., Seattle to Vancouver. A statement called Alice "a radical rethinking of the cost, experience and environmental impact of regional travel." Alice, which is capable of flying nine passengers at 240 knots and a range just over 1,000 kms, will offer a reduction in operating costs of up to 70 per cent while delivering travellers a cost-competitive, emission-free option. According to Eviation CEO, Omer Bar-Yohay, Alice will operate at a fraction of the costs of conventional jetliners, redefine how people travel regionally, and usher in a new quieter, cleaner, cost-effective era of flying. "This aircraft isn't some future 'maybe.' It's here, ready and waiting," Bar-Yohay, told reporters at the show.

Elsewhere, it has been three years since André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard completed their around-the-world journey in Solar Impulse 2, the plane that stayed aloft days at a time powered only by the sun. A remarkable albeit impractical demonstration of electric technology, Borschberg and two Solar Impulse colleagues, using technology licensed from that effort, have started a new company whose first plane, "Energic," has room for two and can stay aloft about 90 minutes, perfect for training, learning to fly, or air-taxi service.

Overall, the biggest problem with getting traction for new existing technology is getting buy-in and investment from industry players. In recent good news, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines committed to the development and purchase of 75,000 tonnes of sustainable aviation fuel a year for a decade—the first airline to invest in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) on this scale. SkyNRG, global market leader for SAF, will develop Europe and the world's first dedicated production plant in Delfzijl, Netherlands, primarily using regional waste and residue streams like used cooking oil as feedstock. The facility will run on sustainable hydrogen produced using water and wind energy, delivering a CO2 reduction of at least 85 per cent compared to aviation fuel derived from traditional petro-fossil sources as well as a significant decrease in ultra-fine particles and sulphur emissions.

When it comes to planes, trains, cars and boats, the technology to make a major shift is out there—now we just need governments and industry to bankroll it.

Leslie Anthony is a biologist, writer and author of several popular books on environmental science.

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