A handful of startups, as well as a few multinational giants, are working to advance electric aviation. In February, for instance, Greentech Media reported that Siemens would supply motors for startup Eviation’s all-electric airplanes.

But there’s another route to all-electric flight: converting existing fossil fuel aircraft into zero-emission e-planes.

On March 26, British Columbia-based Harbour Air, North America’s largest seaplane airline, and the electric propulsion startup magniX announced they would partner to build the “world’s first all-electric airline.” They plan to do so not by developing new planes for delivery in the mid-2020s but instead by equipping Harbour Air’s existing fleet of mostly single-engine piston and turbine airplanes with electric motors and lithium-ion battery packs.

“Technically, it’s totally doable, based on the technology available today, to retrofit our planes,” Harbour Air founder and CEO Greg McDougall told GTM in an interview. “It’s a question of what kind of weight and what kind of range.”

Harbour Air plans to eventually convert its entire fleet of more than 40 aircraft to all-electric seaplanes. Passengers could board the company’s first all-electric commercial flight by the end of 2021 or early 2022.

Trading kerosene for Canadian hydropower

Harbour Air is uniquely suited to take advantage of the capabilities provided by today’s batteries. The airline operates a dozen routes and offers up to 300 flights a day out of hubs in Vancouver and Seattle. But, critically, most of the flights are short and burn comparatively little fuel.

“The bulk of what we do is within half an hour,” said McDougall. “The amount of energy that’s required for us to complete a mission is much less than any ‘normal’ airline.”

“When we looked at what’s logical for electric aviation to start, it was a niche market,” added magniX CEO Roei Ganzarski in an interview. “A market of short-haul flights, with longer turnarounds between flights. We didn’t want to pretend and say we’re going to replace 737s for long hauls.”

The first plane to be converted for all-electric flight will be a DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver, a six-passenger aircraft. The plane will be outfitted with magniX’s new 750-horsepower all-electric motor. MagniX has ground-tested multiple 350 HP electric motors over more than 1,500 hours of operation.

Engineers at magniX’s facilities in Australia are building the 750 HP motor that will be installed on the Harbour Air prototype. According to Ganzarski, ground-testing of the new motor will occur over the next few months. By late summer, the motor will be shipped from Australia to Vancouver, where it will be installed on the waiting Harbour Air Beaver airframe. The first test flight is planned for November 2019.

According to McDougall, the prototype will be capable of a half-hour of flight with a half-hour reserve, and a range of 100 to 150 miles.

Economics so good that ticket prices may drop

Asked about potential challenges of dropping an electric motor, power electronics and battery pack into an existing plane not designed from the ground up for all-electric flight, Harbour Air’s McDougall said he isn’t expecting problems.

“The Beaver is actually really well suited to this because the piston engine we are taking off is extremely heavy for that aircraft,” he said. “You are replacing that with a very lightweight motor.”

The battery pack will be installed in the void left by the fuel tanks in the belly of the plane.

McDougall anticipates the shift to all-electric flight to deliver substantial operational and maintenance savings.

Maintaining the existing fossil fuel aircraft is quite expensive. Harbour Air’s turbine engines must be overhauled every 2,500 to 3,000 hours, said McDougall, at an expense of $250,000 per overhaul.

“With [an electric] motor, you’re looking at a minimum of 10,000 hours at the projected time you would have to look at as a service life,” he added.

Trading kerosene for British Columbia’s plentiful hydropower electricity “is a huge savings. The economics are really good,” said McDougall.

“At the end of the day,” he concluded, “I see us actually able to lower ticket prices and expand our market because the costs will be much lower.”

Passenger flights as soon as 2021

Harbour Air and magniX are working with Transport Canada Civil Aviation and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on certification to conduct passenger flights.

The companies will seek two certifications: one for magniX’s standalone electric propulsion system, so the motor can be used in non-Harbour Air planes, and a second supplemental certification permitting the Beaver to be converted into an all-electric aircraft. Certification is expected to take up to two years.

“Conceivably,” said Greg McDougall, “we could have passenger flight by late 2021 to early 2022.”

MagniX is pursuing two parallel paths toward electric aviation. One is the partnership with Harbour Air to retrofit existing planes.

But the company is also working with plane manufacturers and designers on new-build all-electric planes.

Roei Ganzarski said magniX is targeting new and existing planes in order to capture as much of the potential market as possible.

Even if startups like Eviation are successful in delivering new e-planes when they plan to, from 2022 to 2025, he said, “There’s no way they can provide enough aircraft for all the operators out there.”

“And there’s no way all the operators are going to want to buy brand-new airplanes,” he added.

“We want to offer an alternate route, which is: 'Operator, if you aren’t ready or willing to buy a brand-new aircraft because you already have your existing aircraft, why don’t you put an electric propulsion system on it?'”