The first electric-hybrid aircraft to use Heathrow Airport will escape landing charges for a year – a prize worth up to £1m.
The airport’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, is to launch the race at the BusinessGreen Leaders Summit in London. The first plane is expected to touch down at Europe’s busiest airport within 12 years.
Ahead of the event, Mr Holland-Kaye said: “We championed carbon-neutral growth in global aviation, which will come into effect in 2020.
“The next frontier is zero-carbon flying, and I hope this prize will help to make it a reality at Heathrow by 2030.”
The aim of the offer is to accelerate development and uptake of electric aircraft.
While small electric-powered craft have made successful flights, the challenge is to create planes that are big enough and have sufficient range to compete with conventional aircraft.
Some of Heathrow’s busiest routes are at the initial target range for commercial electric aircraft: Amsterdam (231 miles), Dublin (280 miles) and Edinburgh (331 miles).
Dozens of projects are seeking to make electric aircraft commercially feasible.
Britain’s biggest budget airline, easyJet, has teamed up with a US firm, Wright Electric, to develop a 150-seat plane capable of flying up to 300 miles. The airline plans to fly from Heathrow when a third runway is built.
The chief executive of easyJet, Johan Lundgren, said: “We support airports who are encouraging airlines to operate the most sustainable aircraft and welcome this initiative from Heathrow Airport.
“We firmly believe it is not if, but when, electric commercial aircraft become a reality.”
The key issue for designers is energy density, which is far higher for jet fuel than for even the most advanced batteries.
Initially many developers are focusing, like Heathrow, on aircraft which combine electric and conventional gas-turbine power.
Using electricity during take-off, when jet engines are noisiest and thirstiest, could dramatically reduce both fuel consumption and noise.
A British Aerospace 146 commuter aircraft is being adapted to carry two tons of batteries and the world’s most powerful flying generator. One of its four engines will run on electricity.
Earlier this year, Norway’s airport operator, Avinor, pledged to switch to electric air transport for flights of up to 90 minutes by 2040.
A leading US start-up, Zunum Air of Seattle, says: “Our aircraft are ‘hybrid-to-electrics’ that sip fuel only when they have to, will use even less over time as batteries upgrade, and will one day go completely without.”
The aviation minister, Liz Sugg, said: “Heathrow’s initiative is an innovative programme which will encourage airlines to invest in electric-hybrid aircraft.”
While Heathrow Airport has been chosen as the location for the next runway in the London area, it faces stiff environmental opposition.
Electric transportation, both in the air and on the ground, could help the expanded airport meet targets on noise and emissions.
On Thursday, rival Gatwick Airport will unveil plans to bring its standby runway into use at the same time as the main runway.
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