INTERNATIONAL - Home to some of the busiest flight routes in Europe, whisking passengers across a rugged and mountainous landscape, Norway’s aviation industry now readies to go electric.
Norway is one of Tesla’s biggest markets, with about 8,500 cars sold last year. Now, the country whose tourism sales pitch is "Powered by Nature" wants to be a pioneer in the market for electric planes. Wideroe, a local airline that operates small planes on short haul flights, sees no major technological barriers ahead and plans to launch its first commercial aircraft propelled by some form of electric power within the next 10 years.
“Today, we fly the smallest aircraft on the shortest routes, based on an aging technology that was developed in the 1970’s,” Wideroe’s Chief Executive Officer Stein Nilsen said in an interview. "There’s been much development in the aviation sector, but not on the smallest aircraft."
Monday marks the inaugural flight of an electric two-seater plane, which will take off from Oslo Airport with the country’s transport minister as a passenger. The plane, made by Slovenian manufacturer Pipistrel, can fly for up to one hour. Avinor, a state-owned company that operates the country’s airports, say the short test flight will demonstrate the feasibility of pollution-free aviation.
Western Europe’s largest exporter of oil and gas has pledged to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 40 percent by 2030. About half of all new cars sold there are electric ( Germany only recently leapfrogged Norway as Europe’s biggest market for electric cars), and battery-powered ferry boats are also being built. The thrust to electric planes should cut emissions further, though environmentalists are skeptical.
“The growth in both Norwegian and international aviation is one of the big drivers of climate change, which is completely out of control,” said Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace in Norway. "Even if there’s a small chance that we’ll be able to get some small electric aircraft in the air covering short distances, there’s no indication that we’ll be able to replace today’s medium and long haul distances with electric propulsion.”
That message fails to resonate with Wideroe, which likens what’s happening in the aviation industry to the rapid transformation currently underway in the automobile industry.
“Those who need to drive fossil fueled cars will still buy these cars, but (the industry’s) total emissions are nevertheless coming down,” Wideroe’s Nilsen said. "We must have a similar view for the aviation industry."
Norwegian Air ASA, Norway’s largest airline and Europe’s third-largest low-cost carrier, has already expanded its fleet with fuel-efficient aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 MAX. But like other major airlines has no plans to go electric until the technology matures.
“When electric aircraft are able to replace today’s commercial machines, we will of course be interested,” spokesman Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen said.
Wideroe is far more ambitious. It currently operates 40 Bombardier Inc. Dash 8 turboprop planes and carries 2.8 million passengers each year. It wants to replace its entire fleet with new technology by 2030. “We have reached out to manufacturers to motivate them to create an aircraft designed for Norway with a new technological platform,” the CEO said.
One of those manufacturers is Zunum Aero, a Boeing Co.-backed startup that plans to deliver its first hybrid-electric plane to JetSuite Inc. in 2022. The plane will have a range of 700 miles and seat up to 12 passengers.
“When large research and development resources move in the same direction, things tend to move fast,” Stein Nilsen said. But creating an aircraft that will withstand the unapologetic weather conditions of northern Norway may pose a challenge.
“We don’t see any technological barriers that will make this impossible to achieve,” Nilsen said.