GA and the Environment: Euro-vironment

European general aviation trends green

July 1, 2009

A broad-brush introduction to the politics of environmental protection gives us a backdrop for a quick review of how European general aviation is coming to terms with environmental challenges.

Comparatively speaking, American public attention has only recently been strongly focused on environmental policymaking. True, July 1970 saw the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the first laws against air and water pollution soon followed. But it wasn’t until December 1997 that the world took aim at greenhouse gasses and global warming. That was when the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed. So far, 183 nations have signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol (the United States isn’t among them), which commits to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 5.2 percent, compared to 1990 emissions levels. Another goal is to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2012. The principal greenhouse gases pertaining to aviation include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide—all byproducts of internal combustion engines.

That across-the-board reduction isn’t distributed equally among all nations. The heaviest burdens fall on the most industrialized countries. That’s why the 27 European Union nations have been asked to reduce their GHG emissions by 8 percent. Japan must reduce GHGs by 6 percent, Russia gets away with no reductions, and Iceland and Australia are actually permitted increases in GHGs of 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

Below 12,566 pounds, no sweat

The regulations may sound onerous, but the fact is that aircraft weighing less than 12,566 pounds are exempt from GHG emissions rules. Rules for heavier turboprops and business jets are still in the works—and hotly debated. The latest word is that the European Union (EU) will require operators of airplanes weighing more than 12,566 pounds to submit environmental monitoring plans by August 2009, and have them approved by their home nations by the end of 2009. After January 1, 2012, all airplanes in this weight category must have joined a recognized emissions trading scheme (ETS)—including foreign airplanes visiting the EU nations. Non-European aircraft will be assigned to one EU country for the purpose of verifying participation in an ETS. However, exemptions will be granted to operators participating in an ETS program in their home nation.

But for the immediate future, it appears that the airlines, with their big fleets, huge fuel burns, and dense network of routes and hubs, will pay the heaviest price for emissions. Literally.

European airlines—all of them, and there are dozens—that go over their calculated allotment of carbon emissions must participate in carbon trading programs. These trading schemes let airlines offset the calculated value of their carbon exceedances by buying into funds that invest in environmentally friendly enterprises. How much investment? One International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations expert estimates that European airlines will buy 9 billion euros worth of carbon offsets beginning in 2011 to 2012.

It’s part of an ambitious goal to reduce nitrous oxide by 80 percent and carbon dioxide by 50 percent—while at the same time boosting scheduled airline capacity by 300 percent, increasing annual flights by 16 million, and having 99 percent of flights land or take off within 15 minutes of schedule. All of this is to be accomplished while achieving a 10-percent reduction in environmental effects. Sounds overly ambitious, but it’s all set down in Europe’s Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) documents.

Electric alternatives

European general aviation has been at the forefront of many innovations, most of them spurred on because of high fuel prices and steep user fees. So it is today, but with a green twist. The promise of clean electric power was evident at this year’s AERO convention in Friedrichshafen, Germany—a show devoted entirely to GA. There, several electric motors were on display for the first time.

One manufacturer, Electravia of Saint Pierre d’Argençon, France, is selling small electric motors for use in motorized hang gliders—“trikes”—as well as powered sailplanes and light sport airplanes. Electravia’s single-seat Electra is powered by a 25-horsepower GMPE 102 electric motor, driven by power from a lithium polymer battery. The airplane has flown for 48 minutes on a single charge. Electravia’s ElectroTrike uses the same powerplant to fly 30 minutes at speeds up to 32 knots. And there is the Alatus powered sailplane, which can use the GMPE 102 motor to help it climb out of sinking air or fly short cross-countries without the need to seek thermals. In the Alatus application, speeds of 36 knots are possible. Electravia had sold 10 of the sailplanes, four ElectroTrikes, and numerous motors for homebuilt, experimental-category airplanes. A 45-horsepower electric motor is under development.

Electric motors like Electravia’s use belt-driven reduction drives to step down high engine revolutions (3,000 rpm) so that propellers can turn at a more efficient 1,000 rpm. Although the benefits include no emissions, these new systems wouldn’t have been possible without the latest lithium polymer battery technology. They are derived from the lithium-ion battery technology used in newer cell phones and use a lithium-salt electrolyte that’s held in a polymer composite. The advantages include long battery life, low self-discharge rates, durability, light weight, and the ability to withstand a high number of charging cycles. Electravia says it takes just one hour to bring its batteries to full charge.

The down side is the acquisition cost. The GMPE 102, for example, sells for 2,132 euros (about $2,900), its instrument package lists for 753 euros (about $1,025), and special tools cost 36 euros ($50). Then again, these are one-time costs, and there are no fuel costs or overhauls to worry about. For more information, visit the Web site.

Electravia isn’t the only European manufacturer embracing electric propulsion. Slovenia’s Pipistrel Aircraft is designing its experimental-category Taurus Electro, a composite-construction, side-by-side, two-seat sailplane with a 40-horsepower, retractable electric motor designed for self-launches. Pipistrel’s goal is for its motor to be able to allow climbs to 6,000 feet on a single battery charge. In this installation, two lithium-polymer batteries will be required.

Perhaps the most interesting development in electrical propulsion involves Flight Design GmbH’s proof-of-concept hybrid engine design. Flight Design has bolted a 40-horsepower auxiliary electric motor to the stock, 80-horsepower Rotax 912 engine of its very popular Flight Design CT light sport airplane. The idea is to use the electric motor’s power for takeoff and climb, then turn it off for normal operations. Should the Rotax conk out in flight, Flight Design says the electric motor—which recharges via a belt drive running off the Rotax—can be started and used to prolong a glide, and thus help select the best possible forced-landing site.

Solar power

Solar power for aircraft has so far proven impractical. Solar cells cost too much and put out too little power. At a panel discussion at the AERO convention, Professor Rudolf Volt-Nitschmann of Stuttgart University spoke for most of the research community when he said, “It makes no sense in general aviation. A solar engine for the typical general aviation [aircraft] would cost about 200,000 euros [about $270,000]…more efficient diesel-electric hybrids designs are coming, and these would make more sense.”

Even so, designs like DuPont’s Solar Challenger have proven that solar cells can indeed power very light aircraft. And encouraging experiments continue in Europe. Italy’s Alisport makes its Silent series of self-launching, powered sailplanes (one of them powered by a lithium-polymer electric motor), and offers avionics powered by solar cells installed on the fuselage.

The Sunseeker II (http://solar-flight.com/) keeps the Solar Challenger idea alive. Designed and built by Eric Raymond, a Californian living in Switzerland, the Sunseeker II is covered by solar panels. The panels feed lithium polymer batteries, which in turn power an eight-horsepower, tail-mounted motor and propeller, plus navigation and other instruments. Raymond says that sustained cruise speeds of 35 knots are possible when operated under power, and that battery life is 15 minutes if the airplane is flown at full power, as in the takeoff and climb phases of flight. It takes 30 to 45 minutes to recharge the batteries once power is reduced in cruise—or if the Sunseeker II is flown as a pure sailplane.

Raymond has flown the Sunseeker II across the United States, and plans future flights from Europe to Africa. At AERO, Raymond said he likes to climb to 10,000 feet or so, then cruise on solar power. He said that unlike his previous design, the two-horsepower Sunseeker I, he doesn’t have to worry as much about avoiding downdrafts and depending on updrafts to stay aloft. The Sunseeker II won the “best of show” award at AERO’s E-flight Expo, an event dedicated to ecologically friendly flying.

Another angle to solar-powered aviation doesn’t have to do with airplanes at all. European entrepreneurs are coming up with solar-powered hangars as a means of saving energy, paying energy credits back to power companies, and providing a source of electrical power for hangar use. Alto General Aviation Services GmbH of Eltville am Rhein, Germany, specializes in solar-cell-powered circular hangars. Aircraft are parked on a circular turntable, and solar power opens outside doors and rotates the turntable so that aircraft can enter and exit the hangar. Solar power also heats, cools, and feeds electrical outlets for lighting, battery charging, and other electrical appliances.

Airports as eco-zones

Germany’s Fürstenfeldbruck airport, west of Munich, may set an precedent in future ecological debates. Fürstenfeldbruck (Fürsty) was a busy military airport from 1935 to 1996, with as many as 120,000 fighter-jet takeoffs and landings per year. Neighbors complained about the noise, of course, but the airport was given joint-use status in 1996, and military use virtually ceased. The Munich Flying Club began using the runway and a few buildings, flying less than 12,000 movements per year. Noise dropped so much that neighbors in the nearby village of Maisach never noticed the GA airplanes coming and going. After all, they were used to hearing F–104s and F–15s.

In 2004, federal naturalists discovered several species of endangered native birds and small mammals on the airport and declared it a “Flora-Fauna Habitat.” This made the airport protected territory, and off-limits to future development. But this didn’t prevent the flying club from buying 50 percent of the civil side of Fürsty, with the Bavarian state owning the other half—as long as the protected zone was undisturbed. By 2008, the Bavarian government had approved a Maisach plan to use a taxiway as a street, and to turn part of the airport into a horse-racing track. Maisach also was persuaded by automaker BMW to turn a chunk of Fürsty into a test track.

Under the rules, BMW would have to find another tract with Flora-Fauna Habitat value, and it has to be 150 percent the size of Fürsty, which occupies 717 acres. GA prevails in the name of environmental protection, with the flying club hoping to keep its runways—and the use of the empty buildings for hangars and an FBO. The club vows to preserve the green space. You may not think of your airport as a green zone, but the story makes you think of yet another way that threatened airports make valuable contributions to environmental preservation.

Noise

Complaints about airport noise are a problem everywhere, but in Europe the state frequently acts as enforcer. At some airports pilots have to follow routes and altitudes tailored for low-noise footprints. Noise rules vary widely, and in many locations they are strict. Night curfews—even for airplanes as benign as a Cessna Skyhawk—are common in many localities. Some airports ban flying on Sundays. Depending on the severity, frequency, and flagrancy of a curfew-bust, fines equaling $1,000 or more can be levied against offending pilots.

Generally speaking, any GA aircraft that meets FAA Part 36 noise requirements won’t cause a noise infraction. Which makes sense, because many airplanes in the European GA fleet were built by American manufacturers. But depending on the jurisdiction, some airplanes—such as glider tugs, agricultural airplanes, or unusually loud engine/propeller combinations—may have to have their exhaust systems fitted with special mufflers, or have their propellers swapped out for quieter ones.

Is Europe the predictor for green measures American pilots may face in the near future? There’s no denying that the era of green flying is beginning. Kyoto started the ball rolling, and it will be interesting to see how the situation evolves here.

E-mail the author at tom.horne@aopa.org.

Carbon offsets and calculators

The European Union’s 2012 requirement for business jets and turboprops weighing more than 12,566 pounds to participate in emissions trading schemes (ETSs) has prompted increased awareness on this side of the Atlantic. One manufacturer, Bombardier Aerospace, has instituted a voluntary carbon offset program called ClimateCare. Currently, all of Bombardier’s demonstrators and shuttle airplanes participate in ClimateCare—along with the airplanes in Bombardier’s Flexjet fractional ownership fleet. Carbon offset programs are controversial. Some see them as having little positive effect (see “The Lindbergh Foundation’s Take on Carbon Offsets,” page 62).

ClimateCare is operated by J.P. Morgan’s Environmental Markets Group, and it invests contributions in environmentally friendly enterprises. Under the Bombardier plan, offset payments are based on an airplane’s fuel burn per flight hour. For a Learjet 40XR, the hourly charge is $27.72; for a Global Express XRS, it’s $71.24 per hour. Because they’re hourly, the fees don’t vary. “These prices are lower than those being proposed in Europe, where ETS credits are calculated per ton of calculated carbon emissions. On European carbon trading markets, each ton of carbon is priced at 25 euros [about $34],” said Michael McAdoo, Bombardier’s vice president and general manager of fleet management systems.

“Several dozen aircraft are on the program,” McAdoo said. “We obviously are committed to reducing the effects of greenhouse gases, and view ClimateCare as an important part of our corporate social responsibility.” McAdoo said. “I suspect that the number of airplanes will grow in 2012, when the Europeans will make carbon offsets and trading a requirement for using their airspace.”

The Web site includes a carbon emissions calculator, applicable to airline and automobile travel, as well as home and business emissions. You can even purchase your own carbon offsets through the Web site.

Another carbon offset program is Carbon Neutral Plane, which is endorsed by the National Business Aviation Association and the National Air Transportation Association. Carbon Neutral Plane invests in the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX). The CCX is a cap-and-trade system that operates much like the ETS. Participation is voluntary, but once in the program customers agree to meet annual GHG emissions targets. Those who exceed the targets must buy CCX financial contracts. For more information, visit the Web site. —TAH