People attending a panel discussion called Electrifying Issues for Salt Spring and B.C. at the high school on Saturday got an intimate look at specific challenges of the transition to electric buses, planes and ferries, as people doing the work to make it happen shared the state of affairs in their industries.
As part of the Electrify Salt Spring! festival organized by Salt Spring Community Energy (SSCE), two Harbour Air reps talked about the company’s fully electric “ePlane,” which flew from the mainland to Ganges Harbour on Thursday, and then went to Victoria on Sunday. Engineer Erika Holtz said the six-seater craft runs on lithium ion batteries, which power a 750-horsepower motor created by the Washington-based magniX company. The seaplane’s body is a retrofitted De Havilland Beaver, since no companies are manufacturing the beloved workhorse any longer.
Shawn Braiden is vice president of maintenance for Harbour Air and intimately involved with the electrification project. He graduated from Gulf Islands Secondary School in 1996 and knew then he wanted a career in the aviation industry. Braiden shared an anecdote that illustrated how much he and his cohorts learned in building the first ePlane, which was completed in 2019 and had its first test flight in 2021, and how the industry is evolving.
“We got version one built, put it all together and did its first flight. Everything worked. Everything was great. Everybody was happy.”
Then all the engineers involved were asked, “If we had to build it again, what would you change?”
The answer was just about everything.
“It’s one of those things where we’ve learned so much. You would never have been able to do it by just doing this as a project on a whiteboard.”
Harbour Air is now working on version two, which is also a Beaver.
“The fuselage is already painted that green colour, the wings are painted, the tail feathers, it’s all sitting on racks in the hangar, we’re waiting on the motor and we’ll be starting building as soon as we can to get version two going.”
But Harbour Air is challenged by federal government regulators not yet certifying battery technology, or creating specific goalposts or targets for the company to reach, explained Holtz. The hope is that those targets will be set by the middle of next year.
As technology changes, each new plane will incorporate the latest battery innovations, she said.
“We fully believe once the goalposts are erected . . . we can be in the position to roll out new technology every three to six months.”
Flying times and passenger limits would also change, beginning with maybe two to three passengers travelling 30 minutes, rising to four passengers six months later; then four passengers accommodated on an hour-long flight.
“Once we actually have a goalpost to shoot at, the incremental change can come fairly quickly once they know where we’re going.”
Panel moderator Kjell Liem of SSCE asked Braiden whether solid-state batteries could be used in future Harbour Air ePlanes.
Braiden said some of the technology his group has seen is not yet applicable.
“They can store [the energy], they can get the weight down, but we can’t get the energy [in or out of them] fast enough,” he said.
Holtz said NASA is working on that challenge, and in partnership with magniX.
Things are more straightforward for BC Transit. Warren Boyle, who is program manager for the Low Carbon Fleet Electrification and Facilities department, said BC Transit is striving to have an all-electric bus fleet by 2040.
“Our first project is underway in Victoria and there will be 10 buses there sometime this fiscal, which is really exciting,” he said.
But BC Transit does not yet have smaller electric-bus options for rural areas like Salt Spring.
“The industry that we would normally tap to supply those buses hasn’t created a product that has the range for us to deliver transit service yet.”
He described the various ways electric buses can be charged, from onboard chargers, to DC fast chargers (which is what the Victoria system will use), overhead pantograph charging units and induction charging, which is a relatively immature technology.
BC Ferries electrical project engineer Babak Manouchehrinia said BC Ferries currently has six Island Class ferries that are able to run solely on electricity but with their diesel engines still being used. More Island Class ferries are planned for the future, including two for use on the Vesuvius to Crofton route.
While each mode of transportation has different needs, the representatives from BC Transit, Harbour Air and BC Ferries all described how charging infrastructure is a missing piece of the electric transportation puzzle.
A light panel joke was that the ePlane could only make the trip to but not back from Salt Spring in the same day.
But Holtz countered, “It wasn’t that we couldn’t fly here and then potentially fly back the same day, except that we were charging on a seven-kilowatt charger down at the dock. So 16 hours later, we’re about ready to go.”
“So charging infrastructure is something that we spend a lot of time on that is a challenge,” she said. “None of the ports have the kind of power that we need available. So we’re having to develop that at the same time as we’re developing the aircraft, and we are a very small crew.”
Manouchehrinia said shore infrastructure “is a big, big challenge for BC Ferries.” The corporation initially hoped to run all six of its current Island Class vessels on electricity, he said, but has discovered that is not possible at this time.
For starters, to charge a vessel for a 20-minute run requires a 3.7-megawatt charger at each terminal.
“That is massive,” he said.
Using that 10 or 20 times per day would have an impact on the BC Hydro system, he said, “and they need to plan ahead of time . . . and they are slow in terms of getting it done.”
Manouchehrinia also said finding an appropriate shore charger in the current industry market is not easy.
“There are lots of criteria that you need to make sure it would have, especially for the environment that we’re working in here.”
The different configurations of various terminals is one factor, he cited. Using a big bank of Tesla-type batteries has been investigated, he said, but space at some terminals is limited, for example.
And since safety and reliability are of primary concern to BC Ferries, diesel engines would be maintained in their otherwise electricity-powered vessels.
Risa Smith, a founding director of the Galiano Conservancy Association who summed up the discussion, concluded with the need for public participation in the process to accelerate change.
“We as the public have to push for this, if we want it. It has to happen at all different levels. And so that’s a message to us to keep pushing for it at the political level, and to get support for being innovative.”
This article has been updated to correct the anticipated size of chargers required for ferries.