We are on the cusp of a new era in air transportation: electric aviation.
As part of the larger aviation community, we must get ready for the advent of electric aviation. But which should come first, the electric aircraft (EA) or the ground charging infrastructure to support EAs? The aircraft technology is here. The battery technology is also here, but with promise of greater range and resiliency coming soon. Several original equipment manufacturers (OEM’s) are using today’s technology to build prototype EAs, operating under FAA experimental certificates (or their EASA equivalent). Others are lining up to quickly follow, with more advanced capabilities.
Over the next five years, we will be encountering a wide variety of EAs—targeting a range of market niches and different business models—both for the commercial and general aviation spaces. It’s an exciting time as we peer over the edge of a major technology change.
Aircraft refueller trucks (the way that most short-haul aircraft are fueled today) are highly mobile assets. Airport fueling infrastructure is in place in a highly mature industry. Investors can calculate the cost and return on investment with relative certainty. In contrast, the investment in EA and charging technology infrastructure must be made upfront even as activity will be rather limited during the early years.
Planning the appropriate charging infrastructure at individual airports and through networks of airports to expand the range of airline service needs to happen before the electric aviation industry can take off. Think of the evolution of the electric vehicle (EV) charging station market. First, early adopters installed, then OEMs (e.g., Tesla), and now a coalition of public and private investors plans a series of interstate highway installations.
The aviation industry will have some similarity to EVs in developing a wide-scale charging station network. But the operational needs of commercial and general aviation dictate a slightly different approach. Planning the infrastructure, working with utilities, and airport planners to bring power to where it will be needed, and developing a financially viable business model will be a long process. Initially, EA charging infrastructure on its own will not make financial sense. Yet, a resilient charging network must be built if EAs are going to take off (literally and figuratively).
The current generation of fast charging stations are relatively expensive and slow in comparison to current jet fuel processing times. Further, electric charging stations require connection to the power grid and could add additional capacity to already constrained infrastructure. Depending on the airport, the additional power requirements may require a significant capital investment to bring in the needed infrastructure.
4 questions that must be answered to plan for ground charging infrastructure
What is needed?
There needs to be a clear understanding of electric aviation technology and the leading-edge EA capability. There will be two types of users: commercial airline operators (scheduled, air taxi, and charter operators) and general aviation operators (both individuals and fractional owners). Like their jet fuel counterparts, each segment will have different operating requirements and need different ground resources. Commercial aviation flies to a schedule and will need fast charging capabilities to meet short turnaround requirements. General aviation is less scheduled and charging needs will be on a more ad hoc basis.
Both types of ground charging will need to be supported at the same airport. To assess the needed infrastructure requires modeling out and forecasting the anticipated activity and energy and demand charging characteristics to support the projected activity over the first 3–5-year period. There needs to be sufficient infrastructure to handle peak demand and consideration of distributed energy resources. Solar PV, battery storage, and demand management systems should be valued and considered for deployment in partnership with utilities, airports, fixed-base operators (FBO), and EA operators.
When is it needed?
Given the current pace of technology development and certification process, it is likely that the first wave of certification will happen starting in approximately 2–3 years. Widespread adoption of short-haul passenger aircraft operation will likely happen in the decade between 2025 and 2035. But the rollout will not happen at the same pace in every market. Timing will depend on multiple factors including specific market profiles, sustainable and resilient power and infrastructure planning, utility support, local planning, approval and permitting processes, and construction lead time.
Who is going to operate it?
Today, fueling for short haul and general aviation is typically done by a FBO, an airline, or the airport themselves. Who operates ground charging infrastructure will be impacted by who makes the investment first. There may be a period of time where ground charging for EA sits side by side with conventional aviation fuel, sustainable aviation fuel, and hydrogen. It is anticipated that the same operator will continue to service the aircraft, but that economic models may bring additional competitors to this market similar to the significant capital flowing into EV charging station deployments.
How to pay for it?
The charging units will likely not pay for themselves in the initial years. There is also technology risk that may result from first generation charging stations becoming obsolete as better, cheaper units become available. This is where the public sector needs to step in. Larger airports have the breadth of revenue to support the relatively modest investment that ground charging represents. But small airports do not. Yet, small airports are where the EA opportunity is greatest.
OEMs also have incentive to build out some of the initial charging network needed to support aircraft sales. They may be a piece of the solution. But much more is needed if we are going to meet sustainable aviation targets. So, similar to the EV market approach, State and Federal agencies need to create new grant funding programs targeted specifically at EA charging station investment and installation in order to support early adopters. Creative funding approaches, such as leveraging the EAS program, need to be developed to jump starting electric aviation.