July 29, 2011 at 3:07 PM ET
A single-passenger electric airplane that you can (almost) buy is waiting for its day in the sun at an air show in Wisconsin where it hopes to showcase the future of zero-emissions aviation.
The nearly silent propeller-driven plane with a sleek, glider-like design is powered by an onboard battery that has sufficient juice for three hours of flight and a range of about 250 miles. The 220-pound, 26-kilowatt battery is fueled in a solar-charging hangar.
"Our concept is not to bring on the market an aircraft only, it is to bring a system and this system is the aircraft, plus the hangar, plus the energy," Calin Gologan, the chief executive officer of PC Aero, the German-based developer of the electric plane, told me Wednesday.
The company plans to start work next year on an updated version of the plane that incorporates solar panels on the body and the wings of the 440-pound (200-kilogram) aircraft that will extend its range by up to 30 percent when the sun is shining.
The solar cells seen on the plane at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh are non-functional copies, explained Ben Santarris, a spokesman for Oregon-based SolarWorld, which is partnering with PC Aero on the project.
The plane made its inaugural flight this spring in Ausburg, Germany.
Almost ready for market
PC Aero and SolarWorld bill the Elektra One as the "world's first comparatively affordable electric aircraft system." Electric planes have flown in one form or another since the 1970s, though almost all are experimental or demonstration aircraft.
Experimental solar-powered aircraft have also been flown for several years. In 2010, an aircraft called the Solar Impulse completed the first 24-hour flight, a feat that proved the aircraft can collect enough energy from the sun during the day to stay aloft all night.
While impressive, Gologan said the plane represents a vision, a vision that says "the world can live with alternative energy, the energy of the sun." The Elektra One, by contrast, "is reality." That is a practical electrical aircraft for everyday use.
"Our vision is to bring an aircraft with alternative energy, a good range, zero emissions, and low noise and do all of this with low operating costs," Gologan said.
PC Aero plans to begin taking orders for Elektra One aircraft in Europe next year. Sales in the U.S. are dependent on regulatory permits.
A complete system — solar-equipped plane combined with a solar charging hanger, will retail for around $145,000 and have an operating cost of less than $50 an hour.
Electric commuter flights?
Gologan hopes to use the lessons learned from Elektra One, as well as from planned leisure-class planes large enough to carry two to six people, as the basis for bringing electric-powered aircraft to commercial aviation.
One realistic goal, perhaps 20 years out, he said, is electric-powered planes large enough to serve as shuttles, such as those that connect small towns with regional hubs. Since the planes are silent, "noise problems with takeoff and landing" are eliminated, he noted.
The biggest hurdle on this path to the future is batteries, Gologan noted as he plugged more funding for research and development in the field.
"They are too heavy," he said. "We need to improve the battery efficiency to go to the airliner step by a factor of 10. And the rate of improvement of the battery is 12 percent a year. So you can calculate how much time it will take."
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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).