Hydrogen-powered aircraft would make up less than a third of the global aviation fleet by 2050, if the world is to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century — but the amount of renewable energy required to produce and liquefy the H2 needed for these planes will require the equivalent of more than half of all the electricity generated in the EU today, according to figures in a new report by consultant McKinsey.

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And that does not include renewable hydrogen that would be needed to produce synthetic aviation fuels that can be used in existing aircraft. Indeed, the European Commission wants to see 35% of all aviation fuel to be made from the green hydrogen derivative by 2050.

The new report, entitled Target True Zero: Delivering the infrastructure for battery and hydrogen-powered flight, uses net-zero scenarios published last year by think tank Mission Possible Partnership (MPP) — which were co-written by McKinsey — to calculate how much renewable energy would be needed to meet aviation’s hydrogen fuel demands.

MPP concluded in its net-zero scenarios, H2-powered fuel-cell electric planes could make up 16-27% of the world’s aircraft by 2050, with those directly combusting hydrogen accounting for 1-6%.

McKinsey has calculated that if 17% of the world’s aircraft use hydrogen as a direct fuel, 583TWh of renewable energy would be needed annually, while the more optimistic 33% figure would require 1,497TWh — the equivalent to 57% of all 2,641TWh of electricity produced in the EU in 2022 (just under 40% of which came from renewable sources).

The MPP — a consortium of think tanks Energy Transitions Commission, RMI, We Mean Business Coalition and the World Economic Forum — predicts that by mid-century, most airplanes will run on so-called “sustainable aviation fuels”.

While these are currently made with biomass, they could also be made by combining green hydrogen with captured CO2, which could add significantly to aviation’s demand for renewable electricity — although the report did not include synthetic fuels in its calculations.

McKinsey estimates that a large hub airport with its own onsite liquefaction and battery charging infrastructure would need 1,250-2,450GWh of renewable energy a year, or five to ten times times more electricity than what Europe’s busiest airport, London Heathrow, currently uses.

The consultancy estimates that $700bn to $1.7trn in capital investment would be needed to finance enough green power and infrastructure to support even the marginal penetration of alternative-propulsion planes predicted by 2050, with $66-114bn needed by then for on-airport infrastructure.