- One of the biggest challenges of using electricity to power airplanes is figuring out how to charge them.
- Most airports do not have the electrical infrastructure to charge aircraft, and installing charging hardware is prohibitively expensive and disruptive.
- One option is using self-contained solar power stations, a concept that Beam Global successfully tested at an airport in California last week.
- Beam’s CEO explained the process to Business Insider and shared his vision for what needs to happen to make emission-free flying possible.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Engineers designing electric aviation systems face all sorts of challenges. The most obvious of these include how to balance battery density and safety, and the likely answer is that the size, capacity, and range of the first electric planes will be limited.
But Desmond Wheatley, the CEO of Beam Global, a startup specializing in electric vehicle charging (among several other niche areas), says that once you’ve got a plane that can fly on electrons instead of jet fuel, the real challenge will be figuring out how to charge it.
And he has a solution: solar power.
The challenge, aside from the fact that a critical mass of airports would need to support electric airplane charging before it becomes mainstream — otherwise, early adopters will find themselves stranded when they land — is that the process of installing that charging infrastructure could be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.
Most airports are not equipped with the kind of high-voltage wiring to carry electricity to gates, taxiways, and hangers.
“They were built with enough electricity to have lights and air conditioning and things like that,” Wheatley told Business Insider.
To power charging stations from the existing electric grid, every airport would need to tear up runways and tarmacs to lay cables underground. Alternatively, they would need to meticulously plan how and where to run power lines on utility poles without interfering with air traffic, and the FAA would have to be directly involved.
“All of that is so complicated and so expensive as to actually prevent the deployment of charging infrastructure and airports. And that in turn prevents the electrification of airplanes because people can’t fuel them,” Wheatley said.
Solar power, he argues, would be easier, cheaper, and more efficient option.
Beam makes solar-powered charging stations that are entirely self-contained, no new or existing infrastructure required. Wheatley argued that charging solutions like that are the only effective answer to making electric aviation work in the near future.
“[The charging stations] are deployed with no construction and no electrical work because they generate and store all of their own electricity and then make it available to charge the electric vehicle.”
When no plane needs to plug in, Beam’s system can keep making electricity from the sun, storing it for later in a big battery. That way, planes can charge during the night — and even during a blackout, if necessary.
Beam ran a successful proof-of-concept flight last week in Fresno County, California, using its solar system to charge the battery of a Pipistrel electric trainer plane, which took off from Reedley Municipal Airport.
However, it will likely be a long time before electric commercial flights become possible. Battery density — the amount of power a battery can hold relative to its weight and size — is too inefficient to power a full-sized commuter airplane, let alone a larger jetliner.
“It’s still early days for the technology,” Wheatley said. “But two things are happening with batteries. They’re getting much less expensive…and at the same time, we’re getting increasing energy density in batteries.”
Wheatley said that as batteries continue improve and more planes go electric, there will be a loose but direct relationship between how common electric planes are, and how many airports support charging infrastructure — similar to how the growing popularity of electric cars has led to the spread of charging stations at rest stops and parking lots, which in turn makes driving an EV more practical for more consumers.
Now that the first test flight is done, Wheatley said that the next step is to expand the testing program and the introduction of charging stations to airports.
“Aviation being what it is, you can’t theorize anything. You have to demonstrate it,” he said. “Next comes more deployment of our infrastructure, which will in turn allow more people to ‘fly on sunshine’ the way that we did.”
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