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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Green Hydrogen's Potential In Propelling Eco-friendly Aviation

  • British entrepreneur Dale Vince announced plans to launch a hydrogen-electric airline called Ecojet, with the aim to start operations in 2024 and retrofit existing planes with hydrogen-electric powertrains by 2025.
  • Despite increased global interest and investments in green hydrogen, commercial hydrogen-powered flights are not expected until around 2035, with much more technological advancement required.
  • While hydrogen holds the potential to decarbonize a portion of the aviation industry, its broad implementation is several decades away due to the lifespan of existing aircraft and the need for fleet renewal or retrofitting.

With the aviation industry contributing around 2 percent of global carbon emissions, the sector must find a way to go greener. While many industries are beginning to decarbonise operations, some are finding it extremely difficult to find the right path to cleaner operations. The aviation sector has long relied on fossil fuels to power planes, with little alternative available. As demand for commercial flights is expected to continue increasing, one industry that the aviation sector is hopeful for is hydrogen, with the potential to one day power aircraft with green hydrogen-based fuels. 

Greater global investment in green hydrogen and innovative aviation decarbonisation projects could bring the sector one step closer to achieving low-carbon flight. In July, one British tycoon announced he would be investing heavily in hydrogen-electric planes, hoping to deliver commercial flights very soon. Dale Vince, the British entrepreneur, stated last month that he plans to launch an electric airline, to be powered by green hydrogen. Vince has already founded a British energy firm called Ecotricity. Flights from Ecojet will commence in 2024, with routes across mainland Europe and plans for long-haul flights in the future. 

The airline will use 19- and 70-seat turboprop planes, with the aim of eventually using hydrogen-electric powertrains. A recent statement explained, “Short-term, to secure routes and a license from the Civil Aviation Authority, Ecojet will initially fly using conventionally fuelled planes.” It added that the planes would eventually be “retrofitted with the hydrogen-electric power trains as soon they become approved for service by the CAA.” The first round of retrofitting can be expected as early as 2025, a year after Ecojet starts operations, with the use of existing rather than new planes expected to save 90,000 tonnes of carbon per year. 

Vince plans to make the whole flight experience more environmentally friendly. As well as reducing the carbon emissions of the journey, Ecojet will serve plant-based meals and will avoid using single-use plastic projects. Once the hydrogen-electric plane is operational, it will release water vapour rather than carbon emissions, which can be captured and released into the lower atmosphere to make it safer, according to the company. 

This is not the first time an airline has strived for hydrogen-powered flight, with several companies announcing investments in green hydrogen and innovation in plane technologies in recent years. In the U.K., the New Aviation Propulsion Knowledge and Innovation Network (NAPKIN) is working in a consortium of nine members, including Rolls-Royce, University College London, and London City Airport, to develop a low- or zero-emissions aircraft for regional and short-haul flights. The U.K. government introduced a policy calling for all domestic flights to be zero emission by 2040, which organisations like this are trying to achieve. 

However, most aerospace firms that are developing engines to run on hydrogen, such as Airbus, do not expect commercial flights with the aircraft to be available until around 2035. The CFO of Irish budget airline RyanAir, Neil Sorahan, stated “They [hydrogen or electric powered planes] may be the future. But I’m not sure they will get there in my lifetime.” He suggested that with the current technology, planes would require huge tanks of hydrogen fuel to power them, with further innovation required until we reach the point of commercial hydrogen-powered flight, even for short-haul journeys. This sentiment was echoed by RyanAir’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, who stated “Certainly, for the next decade ... I don’t think you’re going to see any — there’s no technology out there that’s going to replace … carbon, jet aviation.”

This is worrying considering the increasing number of commercial flights. While aviation contributes a relatively small share of the world’s carbon emissions, it is extremely difficult to decarbonise. The World Wildlife Fund said that aviation is “one of the fastest-growing sources of the greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change.” And in the U.K., the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) believes the aviation industry could be on course for generating 39 percent of the country’s total carbon emissions by 2050 if no change is made.

Yet, scientists are doubtful that hydrogen-fuelled aviation will fix our carbon problem. While hydrogen has the potential to decarbonise around a third of the aviation sector, it will be several decades before we see mass adoption, as we continue to be heavily reliant on sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). Governments and private companies worldwide are investing heavily in green hydrogen projects for a variety of applications. But hydrogen is not compatible with existing aircraft, meaning companies will need to introduce new fleets or retrofit existing planes. 

Jayant Mukhopadhaya, an aviation researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), explained: “Because aeroplanes live so long — they have 20- to 30-year lifespans — the fleet renewal rates are so slow that any aircraft being bought today is likely going to be in operation in 2050.” He added that assuming the first hydrogen-combustion narrow-body aircraft enter the market in 2035, “by 2050, it can only capture maybe 10 percent -20 percent of its maximum market cap.” This suggests that the aviation industry must continue to finance the development of SAFs to support decarbonisation aims in the short-term, until an eventual shift to hydrogen can be achieved.  

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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