Season 3 - Hydrogen-fuelled flying

Episode 3 - Could the technology be rolled out widely?

Sorry to say it, but despite the fact that this article is in the 100th edition of Midnight Weekly, we’ve got no good news about hydrogen planes becoming a reality anytime soon. If you’ve read the previous two editions of the newsletter, you’ll know that this technology, which is often sold as the main solution for ‘decarbonising’ aviation, faces two major problems. And what’s more, those two same issues are the main things that will stop the technology from being rolled out widely around the world.

Here’s a short summary. To get tens of thousands of hydrogen planes in the sky, you need three things. First, if you start from the premise that there will be as many of these new planes as there are in the sky at present, you’ll need enough ‘green’ hydrogen to fuel 23,500 aircraft. However, as we’ve seen before, according to the International Energy Agency, international demand for kerosene will reach 7.2 million barrels per day in 2023, or 2,628 billion barrels per year. By comparison, Emmanuel Bensadoun, a hydrogen specialist at Expertise/Études de France Hydrogène, says that the EU plans to produce 10 million tonnes per year by 2030 and to import 10 million more. Today, the entre planet produces around 600,000 tonnes. Clearly, it’s impossible to compare, litre by litre, how much kerosene or hydrogen an engine would consume, but that gives you an idea of the size of the challenge that lies ahead if hydrogen fuel is to be rolled out at large scale.

So let’s assume we have enough ‘green’ hydrogen and the hydrogen motors are ready (which, as we saw last week, is far from the reality of things). Next, you’d need plane manufacturers to decide to build planes equipped with this technology, which if you believe the only serious announcement – from Airbus – the first hydrogen-powered plane will only be up and running in 2035. And this will be a plane built only for shorter-haul flights. As for Boeing, the other heavyweight, it’s not taking hydrogen seriously at all. So it’s difficult to imagine production lines being put in place by manufacturers. In any case, as Lamis Aljounaidi, the director of the Paris Infrastructures Advisory and an energy economist, this is unlikely to be made obligatory by regulatory documents on the ‘decarbonisation’ of the flight sector. Once again, we’re far from the planes being rolled out at large scale.

Finally, if these planes were produced despite all that, you’d need airlines to buy them. But you guessed it, the chances of this are rather slim. Boeing estimated that there will be 47,080 planes in the sky by 2041, compared with 22,880 in 2020. This would involve buying 39,490 new passenger and cargo planes by 2041 – just six years after the supposed launch of Airbus’s first hydrogen plane. As is no secret, orders for passenger planes are often the fruit of very long negotiations ranging from nine to 18 months, at the shorter end of things, all the way up to several years. After all, these purchases often form part of development plans that are mapped out over ten or 20 years. Companies need to see far into the future, and don’t make orders at the last minute, Above all because, unlike the wider public, they know that Airbus only plans to deliver 720 planes in 2023. In short, they probably won’t wait until 2035 to order hydrogen models, if those can be produced over the same time period.

So, from one end of the production process to the other, nothing suggests that hydrogen-plane technology could be rolled out at large scale in our skies. It‘s all very well for proponents of hydrogen to say that with the necessary investment and political will, nothing is impossible, not even transforming the entire energy sector, manufacturing suitable engines and forcing plane manufacturers and airlines to switch over to hydrogen, and they’re right. Unfortunately, however, there is one point of consensus that offers a sufficient response to the initial question in this article, which we’ve drawn out a bit just to expose the paradoxes at the heart of the technology: no one envisages using hydrogen planes for long-haul flights (or synthetic kerosene produced using hydrogen). Game, set and match.

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