Over the past 20 years, manufacturers in the transportation industry have converted automobiles, motorcycles, buses, trains and trucks to electric power. Now, airplane manufacturers are turning to renewable energy.
To announce to the world that zero-emission aviation is here, a San Diego renewable energy company embarked on a record-setting flight this week and made two pit stops in Lodi.
Beam Global powered the longest flight in a production electric aircraft, taking off from Fresno Chandler Executive Airport on Wednesday and landing at Sacramento Executive Airport on Thursday.
Pilot Joseph Oldham, a Central Valley native and founder and CEO of New Vision Aviation, stopped at the Lodi Airport in Acampo on Thursday morning to charge the aircraft.
“(The flight) was smooth,” he said after landing. “It was nice and cool, and the air was nice and smooth. (It was) just really wonderful.”
Oldham said he is able to fly the aircraft, which weighs about 1,200 pounds and has a wingspan of 36 feet, for about an hour at a time. The plane can climb as high as 7,500 feet, but Oldham said he didn’t climb much higher than 1,500 feet Thursday.
He flew about 38 nautical miles from the Modesto City-County Airport to Lodi. On Friday, he’ll leave Sacramento and make his way back to Fresno, stopping once again in Lodi and Modesto, and then onto Merced and Madera before his final touchdown.
In all, Oldham will be flying 270 miles round-trip.
New Vision Aviation has four production electric aircraft, the first of their kind in the world, Oldham said, adding that the company has been testing the aircraft for the past three years.
“When we had an opportunity to team with Beam Global to use their EVARC, which is designed to charge electric cars, and prove it could actually support electric airplanes, we thought it would be really cool to try a long cross-country flight between Fresno and Sacramento,” he said.
The EVARC — or electric vehicle renewable autonomous charger — is designed for the automotive industry to stand inside a legal parking space that drivers can park their cars over and charge the battery.
Desmond Wheatley, founder and CEO of Beam Global, said the EVARC generates and stores all of its own electricity without ever having to connect to a city’s utility grid.
“The first thing we’re really interested in is just the electrification of transportation in general,” Wheatley said. “It’s clearly going to happen. We’re seeing an awful lot of electric cars on the road, and now we’re moving to pickup trucks and SUVs and everything else.”
While it is great to see more electric vehicles on roadways around the world — which will ultimately save consumers money and improve both the economy and the environment — the aviation industry is a tougher nut to crack, Wheatley said.
“This is one of the first steps in doing (solving the carbon emissions from aviation problem),” he said. “It’s sort of like Kitty Hawk 100-plus years ago, except now we’re not learning to fly, we’re learning to fly electric aircraft, and in this case aircraft running on nothing but sunshine. It’s proving that we’re able to do this — take an electrical aircraft and fly over quite long distances using nothing but renewable energy to do that. It’s a very worthy effort, and the best way to do that in a very visible way to break a record.”
Once set up, the EVARC will track the sun as it rises in the morning, makes its way across the daylight sky and sets in the evening, converting that solar energy into electricity and storing it until a vehicle needs to charge.
Oldham touched down at Lodi Airport at about 7:20 a.m. Thursday, and he said it would take roughly 3.5 hours to completely charge before taking off for Sacramento.
“This is just the first of hundreds of airplanes that are in the works right now that will be taking to the skies over the next three to 10 years,” he said. “And aviation is going to be one of the toughest areas to reduce carbon emissions. So investing in infrastructure that will support electric aircraft really furthers California’s mission, we believe, in terms of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions.”
Flying an hour costs about $4, Oldham said, compares to $40 an hour to fly an aircraft with a combustion engine. In addition, the electric propulsion system in his aircraft uses less energy and requires less maintenance because there is no need for engine oil, sparkplugs or other components of a combustion engine machine.
The main difference between an electric aircraft and a gasoline-powered one, he said, is that the engine is always running and the propeller is always turning in the latter machine.
As soon as a pilot pulls the throttle of an electric aircraft back to zero and lets the machine sit on the tarmac, the engine and propeller stop, similar to the system of an electric car sitting idle at a stoplight.
“The other thing is the silence, the quietness of it,” Oldham said. “There’s prop and wind noise when you’re flying, but you don’t have any engine noise. The big thing for me is the smoothness. There’s no vibration and it’s very relaxing. On a day like this you get up there, you’re cruising along and you sit back and you’re like, ‘This is the life.’ ”
All of the legs on Oldham’s flight will occur during the morning hours, which he said is ideal for flying electric as the air is cooler and denser, making the aircraft’s wings and propeller more efficient. In addition, the plane’s batteries will remain cooler as well.
“You don’t have a lot of thermal activity (in the morning),” he said. “As the sun rises, the ground heats up, and the hotter the ground heats, you get more columns of air rising that create thermals and cause turbulence. And it’s just a lot more comfortable when the air is smooth and cool.”
Oldham said it’s more than likely electric aircraft will become more prevalent as a method of commuter and commercial travel in the next five to nine years, as there are several companies developing planes that could seat as many as 20 passengers to fly all over the world.
“We’re opening up this type of aviation to a whole set of people who otherwise would never be able to afford to do it,” Wheatley said. “If we can get people into the air, then we can get them of the roadways where all the congestion is. In one fell swoop, you’re combating pollution, improving the economic benefits of transportation and you’re also reducing congestion. So it’s a fantastic win.”