By: John Martin Winther Andersen
According to the latest report from United Nations; ".. We should reduce greenhouse gas emissions because if we don't, it's going to get really bad .." and ".. There is a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future on the planet ..".
Meaning all citizens, all businesses, all sectors, all countries must step up their game ... incl. Aviation.
Aviation works hard in this regard, offering customers current solutions with more fuel-efficient aircrafts and offsetting usage of fossil fuel by reforestation schemes etc.. And new promising green technologies like Green Hydrogen, Power-to-X and battery-powered aircrafts.
Such different solutions have per dollar spent of course different results at different times in regards how helpful they each are in helping the climate.
The responsible business
As a responsible business, it is not enough to just offer á solution and believe; "problem solved, job done, we did our bit". That type of buck-passing is not being responsible. We as a business need to make sure the talk actually does the walk all the way to the end. The solution(s), the suggestion(s) offered to the customers must be accepted and chosen by the customer, otherwise it is more/less worthless.
First we need to ensure an interest at the customer, is the message even being received ? - When Gretha Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic to New York in 2019 for the UN Climate Summit, a study from Lufthansa Innovation Hub showed a massive increase in Google search for sustainable- and climate topics like "CO2 compensation". So the interest and awareness are very likely out there.
But are the customers by their own free will also willing to pay extra for a flight ticket, that as a total is better for the climate than the cheaper one that as a total is polluting ?
Customers do not walk their talk
According to another study from Lufthansa Innovation Hub in 2020, the customers are not willing to walk their own green talk. 73-78% think about it and have the best intentions when asked about it, but when the purchase of a flight-ticket happens, the customer does not follow through at all in accordance with their own thoughts and intentions.
"Use social influence, Shape good habits, Leverage the domino effect, Decide whether to talk to the heart or the brain, Favor experiences over ownership"
- those five tools has for sure effect how to change customers behavior, especially how each type of business approach and use these tools, but is mainly targeted to products and services the customer can see a near impact on, not an impact that happens decades ahead maybe even past the customers own lifetime, like offsetting CO2 emissions on a flight-ticket.
In regards offsetting CO2 usage for a flight ticket, just like the Lufthansa study in 2020, a 2022 study from Bern University shows the same trend in thoughts and intentions vs. action. That only 4.46% of all tickets where chosen to include the extra cost to CO2 offset compensation their travel, hardly a noticeable improvement from the 2020 study 1%.
This is despite the public in recent years are daily confronted with near doomsday rhetoric, experiencing and/or seeing & reading about increasing harsh weather phenomena like the wildfires in California that looks like it has been taken from a Sci-Fi movie.
Offsetting CO2 does not work
Obviously it is not enough to inspire to the customers free will, when the payment of offsetting ones CO2 emissions has to be done at the booking process for a flight-ticket.
It also obviously does not help neither the incentives of promoting offsetting, when it later turns out that 85% of offset schemes has not reduced the CO2 in the atmosphere, i.e. a lot of the schemes are overpromising, green washing, double counting or maybe even fraudulent. Trust is broken.
Though despite the climatic impact flying on fossil fuel has, it does not keep people away from flying. The number of flights has ever since increased (except during C19 period), and to emphasize the price of a flight-ticket for the majority is the predominant factor, Low-Cost-Carriers in Europe has seen a massive increase in market share, going from 5,3% in 2001 to 44,5% in 2020. That is despite customers are very well aware of their CO2 emissions in current fossil fuel burning airplanes.
Conclusion: We as a business can not rely on passengers own free will to offset or reduce their CO2 emissions in regards of flying, if it cost them extra. Another approach is needed to make flights sustainable in a highly price-sensitive business.
The solution that can cost no extra
The solution must be that the flight must be CO2 emission free but at no extra cost, than the cheaper mode of flying on fossil fuel.
If we as a business does not take it into our own hand and make it happen, we will likely face governmental policies put into force with different taxes, ban on short-haul flights (like in France) etc. to enforce a change in behavior at the customers wallet.
The future solutions to fly CO2 free are so far; Green Hydrogen, Power-to-X and Battery.
Each solution has it pros and cons and so far we do not have real-life numbers what each solution cost per unit energy at the aircraft.
But we do know the demanded energy needed to produce the same amount of power at the engines propeller, making each technology proportionally comparable. The table above shows that for every kWh of electricity produced at the windmill or solar cell, for battery powered aircraft engines, 77% of its original energy produced remains to power the engine. For Hydrogen (fuel-cell) powered system only 30% electricity remains and for Power-to-X fuel used in for example current Internal Combustion Engines (ICE), only 13% of the original electricity remains to power the propeller.
Note: A turboprop engine, the type that turn most aircrafts propeller, is approx. just as thermodynamic efficient as a piston engine, as this graph from the National Academies Press shows: Approx. 30% efficient, meaning the rest 70% is lost into heat.
This mean that todays conventional aircrafts using Power-to-X fuel, need approx. 6x and Hydrogen powered electric aircrafts need approx. 2.5x more electricity produced at the windmill or solar cell, than the battery powered electric aircraft need. In other words, Power-to-X (for example electro-fuel) powered aircrafts need 6x more windmills, solar cells etc. installed to power an equivalent amount of battery-powered aircrafts.
We assume production and cost of electricity come from a free open market for all and not governmentally subsidized and favored toward certain customers or needs, and that production of electricity incl. surplus capacity has a cost, since windmills, solar panels etc. and their infrastructure do not build, install and maintain themselves for free. This mean that the electricity needed for producing the same amount of energy, i.e. same amount of horsepower delivered at the aircrafts engine to turn the propeller, cost 6x more for Power-to-X based aircraft (and 2,5x more for Hydrogen based aircraft).
Do note that we have not yet in our consideration included the cost for the massive investments needed in building and maintaining facilities to produce the much more complicated process to produce, store, transport etc. Green Hydrogen let alone Power-to-X fuel, compared to just charge the electricity from the windmill or solar panels directly to the aircrafts batteries through the local or regional electric grid. Or for that matter to anyone else connected to the grid for other usage/customers or storage (batteries, gravity etc.), so the electricity can be used for whatever purpose when needed.
We must include battery-powered aircrafts in the agenda
With the obvious energy / cost efficiency in battery powered aircrafts by at least factor 2,5x and 6x, we must include battery powered aircrafts in the agenda where they can be used, i.e. light aviation and short haul like domestic flights for now, and not just as a side note in the Danish Governments plan, if we want to produce the cheapest CO2 emission free mode of flying, because as documented above the cheapest mode is the only mode that speaks to the customers wallet, so it must be competitive to fossil fuels based flying.
If other modes of transportation ahead of aviation converting from fossil fuel to green tech is any crystal ball, just 1-2 decades ago fuel-cell (Hydrogen) cars where claimed to be the future of green mobility, but today makes no longer sense with EV's continuous increasing range and rapid charging capability. This is clearly shown in the amount and cost of EV's offered customers today compared to the scarce amount of fuel-cell based cars and even more scarce availability to fuel them with Hydrogen.
Even the trucking industry has in several instances started departing a future with fuel-cell based trucks and gone to battery and/or hybrid powered trucks. Germany is looking into installing overhead wires for charging and running hybrid trucks on approx. 30% of all highways by 2030 while travelling at speed using pantographs (technologies electric trains and trams has used for many decades) - and other European countries are following.
Expectations of using at large scale Hydrogen / Power-to-X fuels and storage in many segments that has already started being taken over fully or partially by cheaper and today much more available electrification and battery system, are still a part of the Danish Government expectations for usage of Hydrogen and Power-to-X. Despite some experts clearly shows this is probably not going to be the reality like Bloomberg NEF Senior Contributor Michael Liebreich in this article, as seen in his simplified overview, where each technology is expected to win over other technologies in the future to come.
As we documented in a previous article, when batteries energy density reach approx. 800Wh/kg, battery powered aircrats can cover 50% of all flights around the world, with no need of the most likely more expensive Hydrogen or Power-to-X fuels. Batteries energy density are certainly not there yet, but their continuous development looks promising getting there in a foreseeable future.
This is not to say we should abandon Green Hydrogen and Power-to-X production, we will need it where for example battery power come short, but we should not bet all our chips as a business, as a country on it solely, especially when evidence and ongoing experiences contradicts that idea.
We need to include battery-powered aviation in the agenda, so decision makers have the best factual foundation to make their final decisions on. Otherwise this adventure could become quite costly for the citizens.
Note: We will later publish an article where battery technology has got us so far and where it is expected to bring us in the foreseeable future. As one expert recently said: "It has only just begun".