The Orkney Islands are an archipelago off the Northern coast of Scotland. They are one of the more remote and windswept regions of Britain, and when it comes to sustainability, possibly the most ambitious and innovative. The Orkneys are already 100% powered by renewable energy, and they are world-leading pioneers in wave and tidal energy. They are ahead of the game on converting excess renewable energy into hydrogen, and hydrogen powered ferries are due to enter service in 2021. The islands are also among the top three places in the country for electric cars.
To this stellar list of accomplishments, the Orkneys may soon be able to add another: the world’s first commercial electric flight.
Scottish regional airline LoganAir is currently partnering with Cranfield Aerospace Solutions to retro-fit one of their existing planes for electric propulsion. The initiative is called Project Fresson (after the early aviator Ernest Fresson, who built Britain’s first tarmac runway in Orkney in the 1930s) and it recently received a £9 million government grant for sustainable aviation.
If all goes to plan, Cranfield and its partners, including Rolls Royce, will fit electric batteries and motors into one of LoganAir’s Britten-Norman Islander aircraft. This nine passenger plane will be tested as a demonstration platform for electric flight, potentially entering service commercially in 2021 or 2022.
There’s a reason why this is happening in Orkney, and it’s not just to do with the abundance of renewable electricity. Orkney has some of the shortest commercial flights in the world. The record shortest scheduled flight is here, less than one minute flying time on a good day, between Westray and Papa Westray. The runways at Heathrow are longer than the entire flight distance.
You expect baby steps when a technology is in its infancy, but this is a good indicator of what is to come from electric aviation: short flights for a small number of people.
The stiffest competition for Orkney’s global first is a similar island-hopping service in Canada, which already has the plane. The first electric plane designed from scratch, Eviation’s Alice, is another nine seater that is actually being marketed as a ‘commuter’ aircraft. Elon Musk commutes by plane. Anyone else you can think of?
This first wave of electric passenger planes are small and will do short distances. Regional and domestic flights may follow in a few years’ time, but these are exactly the kind of flights where there are viable low carbon alternatives already, such as the train. Very few people are working on short haul international aviation, where flying actually becomes useful. There are no solutions for long haul electric aviation, which is where three quarters of the emissions are. The most ambitious project so far is Easyjet’s much hyped collaboration with Wright Electric, and from London it will only get you as far as Brussels or Paris. It is expected to enter service in 2030.
Keep this in mind when you hear comments like Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claims that “we are on the verge, I am assured, within a couple of years, of having viable electric passenger aircraft.”
Sure. For nine people at a time. In the Orkneys, between Westray and Papa Westray.
- PS – I keep an eye on the Wright Electric project because it involves Easyjet, whose bright orange headquarters is a mile from my house in Luton. I would absolutely love to be proved wrong and for Luton to be the centre of a sustainable aviation revolution. But at the time of writing the latest update from Wright Electric was November last year, and it encouraged people to bike to work and give up single use plastics.