Next Generation Aircraft are coming. What kind of infrastructure is required?

By Dirk Singer / December 09, 2022

By the end of this decade we should see the first electric, hybrid-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft take flight on regional routes.  Then the 2030s could see the introduction of hydrogen aircraft being introduced, able to travel for greater distances.

If you are an airport operator, what does this mean for you?  In particlar, what kind of infrastructure will these next generation aircraft require?

Electric aviation investor and advisor Michael Barnard looked at possible electricity demands, starting with smaller regional flights.  Writing in Clean Technica, his conclusion is that the electricity required will in the first instance be manageable.  

For example, assuming small nine seat electric aircraft (like the Alice) fly 20x a day between Helsinki and Stockholm, a distance of 210 nautical miles, that would eat up around 2.5% of HEL’s current daily electricity consumption, allowing for charging.

As Michael Barnard says, given that we are a long way away from having hybrid-electric aircraft that could displace an A319, airports should be able to cope.

What if an airport generated its own electricity on site?  That’s what Edmonton Airport (YEG) in Canada is planning for, with a 627-acre, 120-megawatt solar farm being built on the west side of YEG’s landsWhen completed, Airport City Solar is slated to be the largest airport solar farm in the world.  

In his analysis, Michael Barnard believes that Airport City Solar would be more than enough to deal with the electrification of even larger aircraft. 

Writing on LinkedIn, Michael Barnard says that it “appears likely that all flights out of YEG, if electric airplanes were available to fulfil them, could be powered by their solar farm with electricity left over.”  In other words, if the electric equivalent of an A319 existed, the airport could manage.

There are also companies looking to help airports, especially smaller ones, with their infrastructure requirements.

Image via BETA Technologies

BETA for example, which featured in our Urban Air Mobility powerlist, has what might be described as an airport in a box type set up. This consists of a series of shipping containers added together that have everything from an eVTOL landing pad, a control centre and lounge, a battery energy storage unit, and even sleeping quarters for crew.

BETA also offers the ‘charge cube’ for charging aircraft.  Right now there are nine in the USA, but the plan is to have 150 online by 2025.

Meanwhile Clear Skies in the USA works with general aviation and regional airports to place solar panels on the aircraft hangars or within the airport estate, so a smaller version of what’s happening in Edmonton.

Clear Skies says that the end result is that an airport runs 99% on the power produced via this micro-grid.  Clear Skies then installs chargers.  These can be used for passenger electric cars, for ground service equipment and vehicles and of course electric aircraft.

Hydrogen has different complexities

Hydrogen produces a totally different set of complexities, as you need to allow for the production, transport and storage of H2.  There have been some reports that the infrastructure requirements could be significant.

For example,  the Aerospace Technology Institute earlier this year came out with a report, which made the following projections:

In 2050 a 50 million passenger a year airport – equivalent to Toronto Pearson based on 2019 figures – will need the following storage capacity: 50,000 sqm if the hydrogen arrives by tanker, 75,000 if it arrives via pipeline, and 130,000 sqm if it’s produced on site.  Those last two figures equate to some airport terminal buildings.

Nevertheless, airports are already planning for hydrogen powered aircraft.

This includes Hamburg in Germany, which is working with Christchurch Airport in New Zealand, as well as Manchester and Bristol in the UK.

Image via ZeroAvia

Rather than have hydrogen transported by pipeline or truck, ZeroAvia, which is working on retro-fitting and line-fitting regional aircraft with hydrogen fuel cell technology, intends for green hydrogen to be produced on site (via solar power), with a short pipeline then running airside. It calls this its Hydrogen Airport Refuelling Ecosystem (HARE).

As part of that, working with Shell, ZeroAvia has already introduced what it says is Europe’s first landside to airside airport hydrogen pipeline.

This runs for 100 metres alongside ZeroAvia’s hangar at the company’s test facility at Cotswolds Airport in the UK.

While ZeroAvia is planning for hydrogen-electric (also known as hydrogen fuel cell) aircraft, aviation giants Rolls Royce and Airbus are planning for hydrogen combustion, where hydrogen is a fuel source directly powering aircraft engines.

Runway Girl recently reported that at the Airbus Summit on December 1st, the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) sounded a warning about the potential for hydrogen leakages to contribute to global warming. Runway Girl reports that at least one company,  Aerodyne Research, is currently developing an instrument to measure these leakages.

More aviation-specific sustainability updates and analysis can be found in our twice-weekly Sustainability In The Air newsletter, led by SimpliFlying’s Research Director Dirk Singer. Do subscribe to our send-out to stay on top of the latest trends.


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