A new electric vehicle – an aircraft – could be closer to taking off.

Pipistrel, a company based in Ajdovscina, Slovenia, is taking orders for what it claims is the world’s first two-seater electric glider, Pipistrel CEO Ivo Boscarol told Greentech Media on Saturday.

The company already has more than a dozen orders for the glider, called the Taurus Electro, and will begin delivering them by the end of the year, he said.

The Taurus Electro, which launches with a motor and uses air currents to stay aloft, weighs 700 pounds and recharges as fast as a cell phone, he said.

Boscarol said Pipistrel received €270,000 ($422,872) from the European Union to help develop the glider. A December press release puts the EU funding at €354,825 ($555,725) and says the company has spent more than €1 million (about $1.6 million) to develop the Electro so far.

Pipistrel’s news came out at the Electric Aircraft Symposium, a San Francisco gathering of about 70 aviation enthusiasts who hope to make the sky the next frontier for green technology.

Airplane designers have been working on electric-propelled crafts since the 1970s, but technical limitations have made it difficult to build machines that had sufficient power but were still light enough to fly.

Presenters at Saturday’s event showcased innovations that could help bridge that gap, from light-as-a-feather carbon motors to high-performance batteries made of silicon nanowires.

In another example of growth for electric aircraft, Bend, Ore.-based startup Windward Performance told Greentech Media at the event that it is seeking $2 million to build its own battery-powered plane, which would fly for up to an hour at an energy cost of only $1.50.

The CAFE Foundation, a nonprofit, hopes to encourage innovation by adding a Green Prize to the annual small plane competition it co-hosts with NASA. The group said Saturday it is seeking a sponsor for the new prize, which would be awarded to a plane that can travel up to 100 miles at 100 miles per gallon.

And the Experimental Aircraft Association announced at the symposium that it has petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to market small electric-powered aircrafts to consumers, a move that – if successful --– could invigorate the tiny but spunky electric-plane industry.

“Changing the way we move through the environment is critical to the future of this planet,” EAA representative Craig Willan said when he made the announcement Saturday. “With the general public interest in advancing the level of alternative fuels for light aircraft, the FAA has given us good feedback and has pledged to work quickly on our filing.”

Until now, the FAA has only permitted electric planes under an experimental category, in which pilots must build their own aircraft. A positive ruling on the EAA’s petition, which could come as soon as six months from now, would allow companies to market their planes to the several hundred thousand customers who fly planes in the larger light sport aircraft, or LSA, category.

For now, the market for the Electro and for similar planes is limited to “eccentric” weekend pilots willing to pay its €85,000 sticker price, Boscarol conceded.

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 2 percent to 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from aviation, most of that is presumed to be from fuel-guzzling commercial jets, which aren’t likely to go electric anytime soon – if ever.

“This is over-the-horizon stuff,” said Adam Grosser, a partner at Foundation Capital, which sponsored the conference. Still, he said, in an age of rising fuel costs, “the notion that you could go flying for free [with electric propulsion] is really powerful.”

Grosser said cutting-edge ideas like electric aircraft could inspire a new generation of inventors and entrepreneurs concerned about climate change, similar to the way the space program captured Americans’ imaginations a generation ago. And, he added, some of the technologies developed for battery-powered planes could transfer into other industries.

For example, San Dimas, Calif.-based AC Propulsion introduced at the conference a highly efficient motor shaped like a bicycle wheel that weighs less than 18 pounds. Reconfigured as a generator, the same device could be used in wind turbines, Grosser said.

While the event attracted several tech investors, including Google’s Larry Page, the mood was casual.

“I think it’s an interesting area that has commercial implications,” said Esther Dyson, an aviation investor and founder of EdVenture Holdings. “But nobody’s talking about business models yet.”

All the same, the conference made it clear that the aviation industry is making significant forays into fuel efficiency.

Naverus, an aircraft-navigation company funded by Foundation Capital, presented navigation software that plots more efficient flight paths, thus allowing airlines to save up to 400 pounds of fuel per landing. Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV) plans to adopt the system, which is already in use in other countries. Engine developer GSE and AVID, an aircraft design and analysis company, discussed their work developing hybrid aircraft for the U.S. military.

In one of the most futuristic presentations, Richard Jones, a technical fellow at Boeing Phantom Works, previewed a “personal transportation system” the company is developing. Part car, part plane, the automated vehicle would allow the average consumer to fly without special training thanks to a computerized “flight instructor” built into the cockpit. Pointing out that gridlock is expected to increase dramatically in the coming decades, Jones said he envisions a future where commuters zoom to work through the air, landing at airstrips built into corporate parking lots.

If such vehicles become a reality, they could increase demand for electric power, said
NASA aeronautical engineer Mark Moore. Unlike piston engines, electric motors require less maintenance and don’t run the risk of fuel contamination, making them easier for a layperson to operate, Moore said. Combining several small motors and controllers in a single vehicle can reduce the danger of batteries running out of power, he said.

Electric planes clearly have a long way to go, but if scientists and entrepreneurs can meet all the challenges, pilots may one day fly more earth-friendly skies.

“We have a responsibility to be part of the solution to global climate change,” said the EAA’s Willan. “The goal of what we do is not to write an assemblage of equations to go on a shelf. We want to put this into use.”