Study finds running a hydrogen plane could be cheaper than traditional aircraft by 2035; requires correct policies and incentives
An economic study by research group Steer, and commissioned by T&E, looked at future operating costs of hydrogen planes on intra-European flights and found that they could be an efficient, cost competitive technology to decarbonize the sector, provided kerosene is taxed adequately. (If fossil kerosene is taxed in line with the Energy Taxation Directive proposal by the European Commission, at €10.75/GJ—approximately €0.37/L.)
In 2035, running planes on hydrogen could be 8% more expensive than using kerosene. But with a tax on fossil jet fuel and a price on carbon, hydrogen planes could become 2% cheaper to operate than their kerosene counterparts. These pricing measures are key to the deployment of green technologies like hydrogen planes, T&E says.
However, aircraft manufacturer Airbus, which has launched three concepts for hydrogen planes (earlier post), is yet to prove it will be able to meet its planned 2035 launch date for its plane. It has warned that the slow development of the hydrogen ecosystem could delay the launch of its zero-emission planes. Airbus has also opposed a criteria in the EU taxonomy—the EU’s list of sustainable investments—whereby only zero emission aircraft would get a green investment label. This suggests Airbus doubts it will sell many of these aircraft, T&E says.
The analysis also shows that the total cost of deploying hydrogen aircraft for intra-European aviation would be €299 billion by 2050. The development of hydrogen aircraft would only represent 5% of the cost (€15 billion). This relatively small upfront cost must however happen before 2035, or risks jeopardizing the success of these new planes.
The bulk of the spending will not lie within the sector. It instead relies on the wider development of the green hydrogen economy, which is developing in parallel. Over half of the cost (54% or €161 billion) will come down to the production of green hydrogen. Another 23% will be needed for liquefaction of hydrogen. Further costs lie in developing hydrogen infrastructure at airports (12%) and the distribution of the fuel to airports (6%).
The study also shows that the total cost could go down by €100 billion if leisure and business traffic remained respectively at 100% and 50% of 2019 levels. Reducing demand for business travel will not only be key to reduce emissions, but also to save costs, T&E says.
Technological hurdles around the development of hydrogen planes are significant. Liquid hydrogen has low energy density relative to kerosene, meaning that a larger volume of fuel is required to power the same distance. This limits the range of these aircraft, but hydrogen planes can still provide a viable alternative to decarbonise regional and short-haul routes, which represent 50% of Europe’s aviation emissions.
There is no silver bullet to decarbonise aviation. Green fuels, demand reduction and hydrogen will all play a role. For hydrogen planes to take off in the next decade, we need to enter the virtuous circle of regulation, investment, a fall in prices, followed by stronger uptake. But the cost must be shouldered by the aviation industry and its users, by ring fencing part of carbon and kerosene tax revenues for green tech like zero emission planes and clean fuels.—Carlos López de la Osa, aviation technical manager at T&E