Flying Green? Wolf Leads Charge Toward Electric Airplanes

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Roads, highways and transportation , Renewable Energy , Climate Change

An early version of the Alice electric aircraft, featured at the 2019 Paris Air Show. COURTESY EVIATION

 

HARWICH When it comes to activities with a huge carbon footprint, commercial air travel has to be near the top of the list. But thanks to the vision of Harwich’s Dan Wolf and his brother Jim, green air travel could soon be coming to the region. Their company, Cape Air, is making aviation history by purchasing a nine-passenger all-electric plane.

The Wolf brothers spoke at a virtual forum held recently by the Cape Cod Technology Council. “I learned to fly in 1977 at Chatham airport,” Dan said. The founder and CEO of Cape Air, Dan also served as a Cape and Islands state senator; his brother Jim serves as Cape Air’s director of sustainability. In the 32-year-history of the company, Cape Air has seen several recessions, including the one that followed 9/11, but last year was the most economically challenging, he said. After the pandemic, with the airline sector and other industries poised to recover, the Biden administration is focused on expanding infrastructure while “de-carbonizing” industries, Dan said.

“It’s an exciting time to be doing this,” he said.

Jim, who’s been leading Cape Air’s sustainability efforts for 11 years, said it’s no longer a focus to try and convince people about the threat that climate change and carbon fuels pose to his industry.

“We’ve all come around to understanding the existential threat,” he said. Cape Air installed its first rooftop solar array in 2009 at a cost of $1.3 million; the company also spent around $10,000 to buy three compact fluorescent light bulbs for each employee that year. Providing that all employees used their new bulbs, “it actually had a bigger impact,” in terms of reducing carbon, Jim noted.

Since that time, solar installations have become much more efficient and less expensive, and the airport in Hyannis hosts one of the largest solar arrays in the country, generating around 10 megawatts.

Dan said that, in his many years as a business owner, pilot and aviation mechanic, he never foresaw that the business might move away from the use of fossil fuels. But five years ago, he and his brother started talks with an Israeli company called Eviation, which was developing a nine-passenger, fully-electric aircraft dubbed Alice. The company has since relocated to Seattle and plans to test-fly its prototype Alice in August.

“We’re now to the point with technology that we are within the grasp of being able to provide the service we provide in electric airplanes,” Dan said. Cape Air is well suited to try out the technology because of the relatively short flights in its route, typically around 100 miles.

Unlike small passenger planes that can be retrofitted to use electric power, Alice is designed entirely around its batteries and electric motors, Dan said. It has a range of between 400 and 500 miles flying between 220 and 250 mph, which makes it viable for their routes. An Alice could fly from Boston to Nantucket in the morning, depleting its battery to about 75 percent. After charging for 30 or 40 minutes – their usual turn-around time for flights – the battery will be at 85 or 90 percent, sufficient for its next flight. Recharging at each stop, Alice could make as many as 10 trips before ending the day with its battery at about 30 to 35 percent, “which is an adequate reserve” in case a destination airport is closed because of weather, Dan said. The aircraft would be plugged in and fully charged overnight for the next day’s service.

“This proof of concept on short flights really works as long as you have rapid charge capability at both ends,” he said.

Therein lies a challenge: airports do not currently have the necessary equipment to rapidly charge electric planes. Cape Air is working with Massport and airports in other places like New York City and White Plains to find ways to get that infrastructure. “We’re working on all of those projects now as we speak,” he said.

As it was when solar power was new, there will be a period of time when government subsidies are needed to help the technology take root, Dan said. “The same is going to happen in our industry,” he said. He is working with lawmakers in Washington to pave the way for this kind of investment. If enough funds are available, it might take only three years for the improvements to be made; otherwise it might take 15. “We have to make sure the FAA actually has the capacity to be a good public partner,” he said.

Part of sustainability is ensuring that green energy initiatives remain financially viable, Jim noted. While large airlines spend between 35 and 45 percent of their budgets on fuel for jumbo jets, small carriers like Cape Air spend less, only about 18 percent of their budget. “Still, that’s significant. We’re using about 3.5 million gallons of fuel a year,” Dan said. At around $4 a gallon, aviation fuel costs the company around $15 million a year.

“If we were able to cut that by half, that would be an amazing savings for us,” he said.

But while oil prices fluctuate, the price of electricity generally increases over time, and that would happen more as more vehicles, homes and businesses turn to green energy. To make electric aircraft truly sustainable means connecting them to solar arrays built along the runway, Dan said.

While electric planes will open new high-tech jobs and should drive down aircraft maintenance costs, they won’t make traveling less expensive.

“If anything, I think airfares will go up,” he said. But over time, electric aircraft will help protect the environment, reverse climate change, and make the air travel industry cleaner and more sustainable. And that “way out-prioritizes the cheapness of the ticket,” he said.