Rolls-Royce's All-Electric Plane Takes Its First Flight

The biggest climate-related aviation challenge remains long-distance commercial travel.

Rolls-Royce's all-electric Spirit of Innovation takes to the skies for the first time
Rolls-Royce's all-electric Spirit of Innovation takes to the skies for the first time.


Sometimes it’s hard to know how to write about electric aviation. 

On the one hand, news that Rolls-Royce has achieved lift-off for its "Spirit of Innovation" aircraft should be welcomed at face value as the significant technological achievement that it is. Propelled by a powerful 400 kilowatt (500+horsepower) electric powertrain, and boasting what the company calls “the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft,” it should help ease the path toward lower carbon aviation for all of us. Eventually. 

On the other hand, of course, the flight lasted 15 minutes, the plane was tiny, and the project appears to be as much about the relatively small commuter aircraft category, as well as the nascent air taxi market.

Kwasi Kwarteng, Business Secretary in Britain’s Conservative Government, certainly seems to think it’s a significant step in the right direction. “By backing projects like this one, the Government is helping to drive forward the boundary pushing technologies that will leverage investment and unlock the cleaner, greener aircraft required to end our contribution to climate change," said Kwarteng.

Similarly, Rolls-Royce CEO Warren East touts it as a sign of bigger things to come: “The first flight of the ‘Spirit of Innovation’ is a great achievement for the ACCEL team and Rolls-Royce. We are focused on producing the technology breakthroughs society needs to decarbonise transport across air, land and sea, and capture the economic opportunity of the transition to net zero. This is not only about breaking a world record; the advanced battery and propulsion technology developed for this programme has exciting applications for the Urban Air Mobility market and can help make ‘jet zero’ a reality.”

Rolls-Royce's all-electric Spirit of Innovation takes to the skies for the first time


The trouble is, of course, that the biggest climate-related challenge in terms of aviation is long-distance commercial travel. It’s hard to see how offering an electric and low carbon option for a new and inherently inefficient application like flying taxis gets us nearer to that goal. And while electrifying and decarbonizing an existing segment of the market like commuter planes may serve as a technological stepping stone, it also runs the danger of distracting us from policy-level efforts at a demand-side reduction. 

I hate to be the naysayer though. It’s certainly worth celebrating the technological achievement involved in getting any type of electric flight off the (ahem) ground. Aviation enthusiasts were quick to welcome the news on Twitter: 

The trick is to remember that we can celebrate innovation and still not put all of our eggs in one basket. Technological innovation—especially early-stage demonstration projects—should not take the place of societal and political discussions about where we invest our time, our resources, and our legislative power. 

While United Kingdom prime minister Boris Johnson keeps flying private and touting the eventual technofix, the rest of us need to start talking about sufficiency—not just efficiency—and how we can reduce our reliance on aviation. In doing so, we can hopefully buy enough time for technology to catch up. 

I congratulate the engineers at Rolls-Royce for what they have achieved. Meanwhile, I encourage their government backers to be equally ambitious in developing alternatives to flying, as well as policy-level interventions that make sure the environmental cost of aviation is factored into the price.