Renewable energy: ‘This is the most exciting time’
The prospects for harnessing renewable energy in business aviation, tempered by realism about the delivery time, excited speakers at Revolution.Aero’s Town Hall online meeting.
“There’s never been a time in aviation that’s as exciting as today,” Brian Flynn, DiamondStream Partners, co-founder and MD, told Town Hall delegates. “This is with regard to the number of people who are dedicating their lives to coming up with innovative approaches to solving known problems that will have a transformative impact on society.”
Flynn was “blown away” by the creativity displayed in the latest products, services and software solutions available in aviation. The level of innovation and opportunity reminded him of 1990s – the early days of the internet and the development of wireless technology, to which he contributed.
His two other reasons for optimism were the increasing availability of capital and the more inclusive approach adopted recently by FAA and NASA. “The capital necessary to enable these ideas is beginning to be attracted to the industry, which is tremendous.” Flynn also praised both the FAA and NASA’s “much more innovative and co-operative approach” to help aviation companies achieve their ambitions. But both organisations need to do a lot more – particularly the FAA, which is grossly under-funded, he added.
DiamondStream Partners is interested in cost effective travel – not renewable energies for their own sake. “It’s more about getting people from A to B faster and at less cost,” said Flynn. “It’s not specifically focused on making the world a greener planet. It just happens co-incidentally the technologies that are evolving right now tend to involve renewable resources. So, there’s a positive externality that results from that effort.”
Growing investment in renewable energy sources was also highlighted by Veronica Relea, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, partner New York. “It’s pretty clear there is more investment in renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind,” said Relea. “We are even seeing major investment [in renewables] coming from the oil majors. Is it enough? We can always do more.”
Relea drew encouragement from the $1.2trn infrastructure bill passed last month by the US House of Representatives. Proposed within the bill is $550bn earmarked for direct federal spending on infrastructure. Of this, $25bn is targeted at improving airport infrastructure. Investment in airport infrastructure seemed to be lacking, she said. “The government must be involved if we are going to get any place where we can replace fossil fuels [with renewable energy sources].”
Flynn underlined the need for substantial government investment. “The $25bn is a drop in the bucket relative to the amount of deferred maintenance that exists today. Flying around the US a lot, as I do, it’s almost like at some of the airports we are in a third world country,” he said.
Yet these are the airports that were likely to see sharply rising demand. Over the next 10 years, the revolution is going to be not in long distance travel but in regional flights of about two hours covering 500 to 700 miles. “This will be into airports that are not well-utilised right now. And there’s not much of the infrastructure money in the bill that’s targeted at these airports and they have a massive need [for investment].”
Even large airports, such as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, lacked the electrification infrastructure to charge eVTOLs. “If you charged three eVTOLS equipped with megawatt batteries, you would literarily shut the airport down.” These problems would become more pronounced at smaller regional airports, which led DiamondStream Partners to think hybrid electric propulsion systems would lead the way.
“We are bullish about hybrid electric because we think you won’t have the [battery] energy density to carry very many people for very long distances on their own – for a while at least,” said Flynn. Also, hybrid aircraft can recharge charge their batteries in flight.
He thought predictions of 100,000 urban air mobility flights a day in Los Angeles by 2030 were unrealistic. His doubts reflected not the technical capability of the aircraft but the lack of likely profitability and infrastructural support. The infrastructural support needed to facilitate such flights “was nowhere near being in place”. Also the FAA would be extremely cautious about permitting the operation of aircraft in such numbers when operated by humans rather than autonomously.
Electric and hybrid electric propulsion systems accounted for 90% of the funding pitches to DiamondStream Partners. The other 10% concerned hydrogen propulsion – about which Flynn was sceptical for large aircraft, at least over the next 10 years.
Relea, from Pillsbury, was “very excited” about the prospects for hydrogen power but acknowledged it would take considerable time to develop a scaleable product. A key enabler would be government support and the regulations to back it up. It was encouraging to see global partnerships between various corporations investing in renewable energy sources. “However, without the corresponding changes in regulations and tax credits etc, it simply won’t work on any timeline I’m concerned with,” said Relea.
DiamondStream Partners believed by the mid-2030s, technical innovation may have developed sufficiently to cut costs. “It is possible that the geniuses out there who are working on these massive problems will have sorted it out,” said Flynn. “So, it won’t require massive subsidy from government to make it effective.”
Revolution.Aero’s Town Hall online meeting, sponsored by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, took place on Tuesday December 7th. Watch the online meeting here.
Watch the Town Hall here: