Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice — and carbon-free’ flights?

Icelandair plans to use only hydrogen- and battery-powered planes for in-country routes by the end of this decade.

A small white airplane flying above the clouds
Icelandair's domestic fleet could include Heart Aerospace's 30-seat hybrid-electric airplane, shown here in an artist's rendering. (Heart Aerospace)
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This week, Icelandair announced ambitious plans to fly only carbon-free” aircraft on all its domestic routes before 2030. For that to happen, though, today’s tiny fleet of electric and hydrogen-powered prototypes will need to transform into viable commercial planes in only about seven years’ time.

We firmly believe it’s realistic that we will be operating a carbon-emission-free aircraft in our domestic operations before the end of this decade,” Bogi Nils Bogason, CEO of Icelandair, told Financial Times this week. He added that, if they succeed, We’ll be the first airline, or the first country, to have carbon-free domestic aviation.”

To date, no planes have flown commercially using battery packs or hydrogen fuel. Although investors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into U.S. and European startups — and airlines worldwide are already placing prospective orders for novel aircraft — the industry remains in the early stages of testing and developing alternatives to combustion jet engines and fossil fuels. 

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For its part, Icelandair has signed letters of intent with two aviation startups. Sweden’s Heart Aerospace is developing a 30-seat regional aircraft powered by batteries and a backup conventional engine. Universal Hydrogen, based in Los Angeles, is converting Icelandair’s existing 37-seat turboprop plane to use a hydrogen fuel-cell system.

Iceland may be an ideal place for such cutting-edge technologies to launch. 

To start, the Nordic island nation is small. At nearly 40,000 square miles, it’s roughly the same size as Ohio. Icelandair only operates three domestic routes from its terminal near the capital city Reykjavik, the longest of which — a flight to Egilsstadir — lasts just about an hour, according to FT.

Aviation experts say that electric aircraft will probably always be limited to short trips like Icelandair’s in-country flights. Batteries alone can’t power an aircraft carrying more than 100 people or traveling over 1,000 miles per trip because of their limited energy density, according to the International Council for Clean Transportation. Hydrogen fuel cells are similarly restricted in how far they can go and how many passengers they can carry.

Another key advantage is Iceland’s clean electric grid. Nearly 100 percent of the country’s electricity production comes from hydropower, geothermal and wind power. In order to actually reduce emissions from air travel, hydrogen used in planes — whether in fuel cells or combustion engines — must be made using renewables. Batteries will likewise need to recharge using carbon-free power to limit the industry’s climate contribution.

Globally, aviation is responsible for more than 2 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions, along with other planet-warming effects such as condensation trails and nitrogen oxide emissions. 

The vast majority of those emissions come from large planes traveling over long distances. But smaller aircraft making short trips can help clean up air travel in other important ways, experts say. Replacing petroleum-based jet fuel with alternatives can eliminate harmful air pollution and noise disturbances at airports and in neighboring communities. Using batteries in particular can reduce competition for the sustainable aviation fuel or hydrogen that will eventually power larger aircraft.

The idea is that, yes, electric aircraft don’t do much [for carbon emissions], but you still want to use them wherever you can,” Jayant Mukhopadhaya, a Berlin-based researcher for the International Council for Clean Transportation, previously told Canary Media.

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.