An astonishing thing happened near the Vancouver airport earlier this month: a 100 per cent electrically-powered Beaver floatplane successfully took off and completed its maiden test flight for Harbour Air.
I had always assumed that floatplanes would be among the last machines to move beyond fossil fuels.
Av gas truly is a wonder liquid. It packs so much in energy in such little space, and is remarkably cheap considering what you can accomplish with it. It is truly liberating to throw a few jerry cans in the back of the plane, and soar off to some unnamed lake in a distant corner of the Yukon.
Don’t expect to see an electric Beaver soaring over Yukon traplines tomorrow, however. They still need to figure out how to make the batteries smaller and lighter for everyday use. I haven’t seen a trapper cabin with a solar array big enough to recharge the batteries for a 750-horsepower electric engine like the Magni500 in Harbour Air’s Beaver. And it’s a lot faster to grab a 20-gallon drum of av gas from your stash in the bush than plugging your plane in overnight. It’s even trickier if you’re flying on skis during short winter days. Then your trapper cabin needs a windmill too.
Nonetheless, Vancouver-based Harbour Air has high hopes to eventually use electric Beavers and Otters for its regular flights between Vancouver, Victoria and floatplane docks up and down the coast.
In addition to being carbon-free, that electric engine has some operational advantages. It actually has more horsepower than the 450-horsepower radial piston engine you might find in a typical Beaver, and has more torque at low revolutions per minute. That’s very useful when you come in for a landing, spot an obstacle, and want maximum power—fast—to pull up and come around again.
In addition to being fascinating from an aviation engineering point of view, this kind of striking technical advance also raises some profound questions about our battle with climate change. Call it the moral philosophy of the electric Beaver.
It is widely agreed that humankind needs to stop climate change. However, is it good enough to just stop climate change? Or is fixing the climate crisis also an opportunity to deal with other big problems?
Here’s another way to ask the question. Is climate change a problem of physics and chemistry, where we need to figure out how to get the energy for our lifestyles without releasing massive clouds of CO2 molecules? Or is the problem our modern globalized capitalist system along with the economic growth, global trade and urban sprawl it has unleashed?
More specifically, is it awesome to be able to fly from Vancouver to Victoria for a one-hour meeting and then fly home to Vancouver later that afternoon? Or is that just plain ridiculous, and a shocking environmental, aesthetic and moral crime?
Let’s illustrate this for the Yukon with two scenarios. Both eliminate 100 percent of our carbon emissions.
Call the first “EcoTech.” Thanks to new hydro, solar and geothermal plants plus one of those new small shipping-container-sized nuclear reactors Canada is working on, Whitehorse has more clean power than it needs. Everyone has switched to electric heat and vehicles, and a plant from Vancouver’s Carbon Engineering is using surplus power to suck CO2 emitted by climate villains back in 2019 out of the atmosphere.
It gets even better. Autonomous cars are such better drivers than humans that the speed limit on the Alaska Highway is 200 kilometres per hour, enabling ten times more country residential lots to be developed within a half-hour drive of downtown. Every member of the family has an electric pod car, so the robots can take the kids to soccer while mum and dad go to the Electric Truck Mud Bog races. Electric planes bring fresh fruit from Mexico daily, along with the latest consumer goods from global mega corporations and ten times more tourists. The old agricultural land along the Mayo road is covered with luxury AirBnB resorts for Chinese and European visitors, whose drone sightseeing quadcopters fill the air over Kluane.
The second scenario is “EcoBalance.” Finally shocked by impending climatic doom, the citizens of Whitehorse have dramatically rethought their way of life. The population of downtown and Riverdale has tripled, with most people living in dense community developments. Traffic is something old people talk about with a shudder while they walk with their children and grandchildren to work and school. Everyone eats food from sustainable rooftop vegetable gardens and the geothermal vertical farms at Takhini hot springs. There are half as many stores as there used to be, since most people get their clothes and sporting goods from the Circular Economy market (formerly known as the second-hand store). Air travel and fresh mangoes are a rare treat, and only socially acceptable if you have volunteered at the Carbon Removal co-op planting trees or running the emission-negative biomass community heating and carbon sequestration plant.
Both of these solve our climate change problem, but they do it in very different ways. They raise a series of interesting questions. Which do you prefer? Which do you think a majority of Yukoners would pick? And, based on your answer to that last question, what choices do you think our politicians will make as they make climate decisions over the next few years?
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.