Air Canada Electrifies Its Lineup With Hybrid Planes

Do planes with short range make sense in such a big country?

Air Canada electric hybrid aircraft

Air Canada

Air Canada ordered 30 hybrid aircrafts being developed by Sweden's Heart Aerospace. The carrier also announced an investment in the company. "Air Canada has taken a leadership position in the industry to address climate change. The introduction into our fleet of the ES-30 electric regional aircraft from Heart Aerospace will be a step forward to our goal of net zero emissions by 2050," said Michael Rousseau, president and CEO of Air Canada.

The plane is powered by four electric motors and carries lithium-ion batteries to let it fly with a full load for 125 miles (200 kilometers) in all-electric mode. Then the hybrid generators kick in, extending the range to 250 miles (400 km). With the number of passengers reduced from 30 to 25, they can push the range to 500 miles (800 km).

As a Canadian, my first thought was this is a very silly idea—Canada is a big country. There is perhaps one major airport within 125 miles of Hamilton, and there are trains and highways between the two. This plane can't even get rich cottagers from Toronto to Muskoka Airport—it was used to train the Royal Norwegian Air Force in World War 2—in the north. It can't connect Toronto to the capital city, Ottawa, or the most fun city, Montreal, on batteries. It could get me to Buffalo.

But the batteries would get me most of the way to Ottawa and Montreal, and the hybrid generators could kick in for the rest of the trip. Also, the plane isn't going to enter service until 2028, and there might be significant advances in the energy density of batteries between now and then.

Heart Aerospace noted: "The ES-30 is a cost efficient airplane that, on top of significant fuel savings, is cheaper to operate than a larger turboprop due to its electric propulsion. The airplane has also been designed to accommodate battery technology evolution, which will increase its fully electric range and make it even more cost efficient over time."

On the Heart Aerospace website, it projects 186 miles (300 km) all-electric by the mid-2030s and 248 miles (400 km) by the late-2030s.

My second thought was we need better ground-based transport, investment in rail, and not short-range planes. I thought surely, the market for these wouldn't be very big. The head of Heart Aerospace has different information.

"Air Canada is a strategically important partner for Heart Aerospace. The company has one of the world's largest networks operated by regional turboprops, and it is also a progressive, future leaning company especially in the green transmission," said Anders Forslund, founder and CEO of Heart Aerospace. "With the ES-30 we can start cutting emissions from air travel well before the end of this decade."

Researcher Jayant Mukhopadhaya of the International Council on Clean Transportation tells Treehugger there is a big role for short flights. "Yes, there is a market. 2.8% of departures in 2019 were for [flights with] less than 30 passengers going less than 200 km," says Mukhopadhaya. "This increases to 3.8% if you increase the range to 400 km. The third number they quote is 800 km for 25 passengers, which would then cover 4.1% of global departures."

Mukhopadhaya continues, explaining the benefits of hybrid over conventional turboprops. Like hybrid cars, there is a penalty to be paid for carrying two power systems, the batteries, and the "reserve-hybrid turbogenerators."

"I cannot say with certainty what the weight penalties of a hybrid system would be. This new aircraft announcement was surprising but not unwarranted, given our findings. It does confirm our findings, especially for a 19-seat aircraft trying to make it under the 19,000-pound limit," he says. "From Heart Aerospace's perspective, they aren't going to be competing with electrics on the short end because of the higher passenger capacity. On the longer end, any amount of flying done on electricity is significantly more efficient than a turboprop so even with the weight penalty, it will likely be at least as efficient, if not more efficient, than a conventional turboprop."

The consensus on transportation Twitter is that not everyone is going between Toronto and Montreal, and there is a need for clean, green transportation between smaller centers.

As Chris notes, Canada is a big country where much of it is dependent on air travel, and Toronto is not the center of the universe. And I have an embarrassing pile of Air Canada/Aeroplan points from the days when I used to fly a lot—I may finally get to use them up without a big carbon footprint. So bring on the Air Canada ES-30!