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Do Solar-Powered Planes Represent the Future of Aviation?

Last week, a small solar-powered airplane landed in a number of California cities, including Madera, Merced and Modesto. More research and development is needed before electric planes can get bigger.

Small airplane
(TNS) — Modesto Airport got a visit Wednesday from the possible future — a small electric plane powered by solar panels.

Joseph Oldham landed the craft as part of a multi-day tour of the San Joaquin Valley. He taxied past a conventional fuel pump, pulled up to a portable solar array and plugged in the plane for recharging.

Oldham is among the pioneers in shifting aviation away from the carbon-based fuels involved in climate change.

The solar array was provided by Beam Global, a company based in San Diego that puts energy from the sun to many uses. CEO Desmond Wheatley was on hand for the Modesto arrival.

"We believe all aviation will electrify," he said. "In the meantime, this sort of thing will be the beginning of it."

Electric aviation has taken only baby steps so far, despite investments by established manufacturers and startups around the world. The planes depend on batteries, which are heavy and need to be recharged often with the current technologies.

Oldham flew a Pipistrel Alpha Electro, which has two passenger seats but little room for baggage or other cargo. Getting bigger would require more development by its Slovenia-based maker.

Wednesday's trip started in Fresno in the morning and stopped for recharging and media visits in Madera, Merced and Modesto.

Oldham departed at about dawn Thursday for Lodi. He had planned to go as far as Sacramento Executive Airport, but it had a scheduling conflict.

The team hoped the tour would set the standard in a specific category — the longest flight, including recharging stops, by a solar-powered plane that is commercially available rather than experimental.

Oldham said he does not believe this plane was the first to visit Modesto under electric power. He recalled someone doing it a couple of years ago, though not with solar. The airport management could not be reached.


The plane has a purchase price of about $150,000, the same as a conventional model of the same size, Oldham said. But the electricity costs only about $4 per hour, a tenth of the fossil fuel rate.

The plane flew at up to about 125 miles per hour. And it did so quietly, with only a purr from the propeller rather than the roar from gas-fueled planes.

Modesto Airport is home base for numerous small plane owners and to companies providing charter jets. It has had regular passenger service from time to time, including to San Francisco, but the costs of such service have not been penciled out.

Wheatley said the low operating cost of electric planes could help Modesto become a bigger player in passenger flights. The airport has plenty of room for permanent solar installations. The array used Wednesday is the same portable type that can be set up in parking lots for cars.

Modesto has no immediate plans for permanent airport chargers, Deputy City Manager Caluha Barnes said by email Thursday. She added that "we continue to look at opportunities for energy efficiency, as well as the reduction of carbon emissions across city operations."

The visiting plane is owned by the Fresno County cities of Mendota and Reedley. They are among the partners in the Sustainable Aviation Project, which aims to install airport chargers up and down the Valley.

Oldham also formed New Vision Aviation, a nonprofit "dedicated to providing residents and youth from disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley with the opportunity to experience flight and begin training for careers in aviation."

The group's only employee is part-timer Michael Murphy, a student at Fresno State University. He is majoring in architecture but hopes to become an airline pilot.

Murphy is participating in the tour as the "chase" pilot, carrying Oldham's baggage in a conventional Cessna 172 Skyhawk. But he has flown the electric model, too.

"Flying electric already allows us to reduce the cost," Murphy said. "We need to figure out a way to get the range higher, but right now, it's in its infancy."

Oldham and Murphy were among the people featured in a recent PBS documentary, "The Great Electric Airplane Race." It explored the promise and challenges of converting aviation to this means of propulsion.


Aviation is part of a broader movement toward electric transportation in California. The state has bold targets for cars and trucks, such as the semis already hauling chips from the Frito-Lay plant in Modesto.

High-speed rail could start by 2029 between Merced and Bakersfield, if the controversial project survives defunding efforts. Feeder trains on Amtrak and the Altamont Corridor Express could be electric rather than diesel under long-term plans.

But this shift would not do much for the planet if the power is generated from oil, gas or coal. Solar panels like those at the airport Wednesday could help fix this.

"We call it flying on sunshine," Wheatley said.

He got here, by the way, not by air but on an electric Zero motorcycle, made by a company near Santa Cruz. An electric Tesla made in Fremont brought Sandra Peterson, his vice president of sales and marketing.

©2021 The Modesto Bee, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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