Transportation

How Harbour Air Beat Everyone Else to the Electric Aviation Revolution

Electric planes work for Victoria and Vancouver in a way that they just don't anywhere else

By The Capital Staff
December 11, 2019
Transportation

How Harbour Air Beat Everyone Else to the Electric Aviation Revolution

Electric planes work for Victoria and Vancouver in a way that they just don't anywhere else

Transportation

How Harbour Air Beat Everyone Else to the Electric Aviation Revolution

Electric planes work for Victoria and Vancouver in a way that they just don't anywhere else

By The Capital Staff
December 11, 2019
How Harbour Air Beat Everyone Else to the Electric Aviation Revolution
Photo illustration by The Capital. Source image, which shows Harbour Air's first all-electric aircraft during tests on the Fraser River, by magniX.

A pretty major aviation milestone just occurred in our backyard. On Tuesday morning, in front of an assembled crowd in Richmond, B.C., Harbour Air performed history’s first takeoff and landing of a commercial aircraft propelled exclusively by a battery-powered electric motor.

The aircraft, a converted de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, had been fitted out with an electric power system designed and manufactured by the Washington State company magniX. The test is all part of Harbour Air’s plan to go full-electric starting 2021.

But, why us? In a planet full of airlines and aircraft manufacturers desperately trying to crack the code of zero emissions flight, why is a B.C. seaplane company poised to ditch fossil fuels earlier than anyone else? The answer, as we discovered below, is due to a perfect storm of geography, economics, weather and a little bit of marketing. If you’re going to sell tickets aboard an electric airplane, it turns out, the Salish Sea coast is the absolute best place in the world to do it.  

All-propeller fleet

There is no such thing as electric jet engines. Electric motors can spin a propeller, but they can’t generate the hot exhaust gases required to push a jet aircraft. As a result, the likes of WestJet and Air Canada continue to rely almost exclusively on aircraft technology for which there is no sustainable alternative. But Harbour Air is in the rare category of being a mid-sized commercial airline that is doing all of its flying with propellers.

The airline only flies de Havilland Twin Otters, Single Otters and Beavers, as well as a nine passenger Cessna Grand Caravan. What Tuesday’s flight test proved was that Harbour Air can go full electric without having to scrap all these aircraft and buy new ones. All magniX did was to take one of Harbour Air’s existing planes, a 62-year-old Beaver, and retrofit it for electric flight.

Once full electrification is complete, meanwhile, Harbour Air’s mechanical division will be able to completely abandon internal combustion repair and focus full-time on maintaining an exclusively battery-powered fleet. Since electric motors don’t require nearly as much care as traditional aircraft engines, this transition will drop maintenance costs by between 50 and 80%, according to Harbour Air.

A larger airline wouldn’t have the luxury of going all-in like Harbour Air can, and would need to awkwardly run their electric maintenance side-by-side with maintenance on traditional piston and jet-powered aircraft.

Short ranges

Harbour Air flies some of the shortest routes of any commercial airline in the Western Hemisphere. The absolute furthest distance the airline ever flies is a 200-kilometre seasonal route between Vancouver and Tofino. The typical harbour-to-harbour flight between Vancouver and Victoria, meanwhile, is a 100 km hop that takes 30 minutes.

Compare this to Porter Airlines, which runs turboprop flights out of Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport. The absolute shortest route Porter offers is a 330 km hop from Toronto to Windsor.  

The main thing keeping electric aircraft out of the sky is the range limits of battery power. For the same reason that you can have steam-powered trains but not steam-powered planes, aircraft have to keep their power sources much lighter than land vehicles. Thus, in the already range-limited world of electric vehicles, the handicap is even greater for airplanes. Kitty Hawk, an electric aircraft manufacturer backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, only just recently unveiled an aircraft capable of flying 160 kilometres on a single charge. Compare that to the Tesla Model S, which can drive 600 km on one charge.

But if most of your money is made on low altitude 30 minute flights, range anxiety suddenly becomes a moot point. Right now, the Harbour Air e-plane is estimated to already have a range of 160 km, but that is expected to rise precipitously as battery technology improves.

The ePlane's motor and motor mount (Harbour Air)

High fuel costs/Cheap electricity

As we’ve covered before in The Capital, the B.C. Coast is home to some of the highest fuel prices in North America. Right now, a litre of gasoline costs about $1.30 in Vancouver, whereas that same quantity of fuel can cost as little as CDN$1.00 just over the border in Port Angeles.   

At the same time, Vancouver electricity is some of the cheapest in North America. And, as a UVic-led study determined earlier this year, those prices likely aren’t going to change all that much in the coming decades.  

In many other markets, electric bills are poised to get much more expensive as utilities are forced to abandon cheap and dirty sources of energy like coal in favour of clean but expensive renewables. But B.C. has enough sustainable, low-cost energy at its disposal that the province is in the enviable position of being able to massively expand its energy grid without significantly adding to its costs.

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Not too cold, not too hot

Electric aircraft are a trickier sell in hot climates. Air gets thinner when it’s hot, meaning it takes more energy to stay in the air, which can be a dealbreaker in the range-limited realm of electric aviation.

At the same time, Harbour Air also has the benefit of operating in the only corner of Canada that doesn’t regularly have to deal with freezing weather. As soon as temperatures start to plunge well below zero degrees, it can begin to dramatically increase power demands in order to heat the passenger cabin.

“Very cold weather is also really bad for charging as well, which would increase charging times since the battery would have to be heated externally before it is charged,” said Shashank Sripad, an electrification researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, in comments to The Capital.

Tuesday's test flight of the all-electric Beaver, piloted by Harbour Air CEO and founder Greg McDougall (Harbour Air)

The Pacific Northwest is a major hub for electric transportation technology

As mentioned, the motor and battery pack that powered Tuesday’s flight was built by magniX, which is headquartered just outside Seattle in Redmond, Washington. magniX is also the company behind the motor in the world’s other great hope for electric aviation; the Israeli-designed Alice, which debuted to much acclaim at June’s Paris Air Show.

Another Washington State company is Pure Watercraft, which has developed electric outboard motors designed to be cost and range competitive with gas powered motors.  

Go down two states from Washington, meanwhile, and you’ll arrive at the California headquarters of Tesla, one of the world’s most well-known manufacturers of zero emissions vehicles.

This all means that Harbour Air happens to find itself inside one of the world’s leading technology nodes for battery-powered electric transportation. In embarking on the untried course of kitting out an all-electric fleet, Harbour Air could be assured they were working with engineers who knew the terrain, and where replacement parts were always only an hours’ flight away.  

The Eviation Alice. Unlike Harbour Air's ePlane, it was designed from the ground up (Eviation).

Environmentally-minded customer base

It’s no secret that Harbour Air serves a region of the world that takes its environmentalism very seriously. Every day, the airline flies over the people that elected Canada’s first Green MPs, buy Canada’s highest rate of electric cars, build the most passive houses and have paid carbon taxes for longer than anyone else.

Add it all together, and Harbour Air is operating in a place where consumers can reliably be expected to go out of their way to buy a zero-emissions plane ride. This is all the more apparent given that, if Harbour Air electrification plans go according to schedule, they will soon become the only zero-emissions way to cross the Strait of Georgia. B.C. Ferries has its own electrification plans underway, but so far they aren’t anywhere close to announcing a zero emissions way of getting from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen.  

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