Electric seaplanes could fly over Lake Union in coming years

As a 20-year inhabitant of Eastlake, the roar of seaplanes flying overhead has become a familiar and even comforting sound.  But emerging technology could make those overflights much quieter, and a lot more sustainable.

Electric airplanes powered by batteries are beginning to appear.  Harbour Air, which partners with our own Kenmore Air on daily flights between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., announced plans to convert its fleet to all electric.  With 37 planes, Vancouver-based Harbour is the largest seaplane-alone airline in North America, and aims to become the first all-electric airline of any type in the world.

The company is starting test flights this year by converting a De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, familiar to Lake Union residents as the smaller, and to my experience noisier, planes flown by Kenmore.  The aim is to gain approval of aviation regulators in the U.S. and Canada, and begin passenger service by 2021. Batteries will provide 100 miles range, or about 60 minutes flight time, leaving a reserve for Harbour’s average 30-minute flight time. 

Electrified aviation in development comes in forms from personal to larger commuter aircraft by companies including Boeing and JetBlue, and promises to reduce air pollution and climate-twisting carbon pollution, not to mention sound pollution.  Vancouver and Seattle, mostly hydropowered, offer some of the lowest-carbon electricity on Earth.  Harbour already claims carbon neutrality, based on offset purchases since 2007.

Redmond-based electrified aviation company MagniX will supply the electrical system. “Batteries remain the limiting factor for electrical propulsion in aviation, said Roei Ganzarski, MagniX’s CEO and a former Boeing executive,” Bloomberg reports.  “‘By 2025, 1,000 miles is going to be easily done,’ Ganzarski said, based on the evolution of current battery technologies. ‘I’m not saying 5,000 miles, but 1,000 miles, easily. I don’t think that’s far-fetched or a pie-in-the-sky thing.”

Electrek, a site devoted to electrified transportation concludes, “Converting seaplanes seems like a good fit, and the two companies also seem to have found a good sweet spot in flight range. Converting all of Harbour Air’s ‘seaplanes into ePlanes’ isn’t going to happen overnight, but even so, this is a milestone.”

Eastlake seaplane historian Jules James has some skepticism.   “My feeling is it is technically feasible, but not financially.  They can get 30 minutes of paid flying time on one charge.  Each charge takes an hour.   Dock space is precious.  I can’t have a seaplane fueling up for an hour on a busy day.”

My hit, having worked professionally studying alternative vehicle fuels including electricity, hydrogen and biofuels, is that battery technology is rapidly improving and coming down in price. Fueling with voltage will be cheaper, and upfront costs can do nothing but come down.  Fast charging could solve the problem Jules cites. Electricity is not going to power jetliners to Europe anytime soon.  But for smaller planes up to intercity commuter aircraft on the Horizon Air level, electricity is the future. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Patrick Mazza

Seaplane sketch by Karen Berry