The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

On The Radar

World Economic Forum Report Highlights Infrastructure Needs for Zero-carbon Flights

New hydrogen- and electric-powered aircraft expected to enter service could require as much as 600 to 1,700 terawatt-hours of energy by 2050, which the World Economic Forum (WEF) says is equivalent to the energy generated by up to 25 of the world’s largest wind farms today—or a solar farm large enough to cover half of Belgium. In a new white paper, the organization spells out what airlines and airports will need to do to ensure that the new means of net-zero carbon propulsion are viable.

In short: it’s not going to come cheap. According to David Hyde, the WEF’s aerospace projects lead, the industry will need to invest between $700 billion and $1.7 trillion by 2050. About 90 percent of this investment will be for off-airport infrastructure, primarily power generation and hydrogen electrolysis and liquefaction.

The "Target True Zero: Delivering the Infrastructure for Battery- and Hydrogen-powered Flight" white paper, which the WEF has developed in partnership with the consulting group McKinsey & Company, spells out 10 key findings for what it will take to achieve this quantum leap in green energy capacity for aviation. 

Much of the investment burden will fall on airports, and the costs will be far higher proportionately for large airports than for smaller facilities, perhaps equating to as much as what would be spent building a new passenger terminal. This spending needs to start now, say the report's authors, who argue that the first elements of the on-airport infrastructure need to be in place as early as 2025 to meet anticipated energy demands. 

“The aviation sector must make key investments in its infrastructure now if it wants to reach its net-zero target by 2050,” said David Hyde, the WEF’s aerospace projects lead. “Given the share of aviation’s global warming impact is set to rise significantly if action is not taken, the sector must consider all the options available for decarbonization. This includes preparing to use aircraft that are powered by carbon-free fuels at scale.”

Large airports could consume between five and 10 times as much electricity by 2050 as they do today to support alternatives to fossil-fuel propulsion. While the report’s authors believe that most airports will have space for hydrogen liquefaction and storage infrastructure, there may not be enough usable land to generate on-site all the clean energy needed to power battery-electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft.

“Ground infrastructure will be an important unlock for battery-electric and hydrogen aircraft as they become available in the next decade as an additional option to make aviation sustainable,” said Robin Riedel, partner and co-leader at McKinsey’s Center for Future Mobility. “It is important that stakeholders across the value chain, from governments to airports to electricity and hydrogen players to airlines begin planning and investing in it.”

Inevitably, airports and other investors will need to pass on the costs entailed to infrastructure users. The WEF researchers say that the costs of alternative production are expected to be between 76 and 86 percent above the market price for green electricity outside the aviation sector, reflecting the inflated infrastructure expenses the industry faces.