'Great Electric Airplane Race' (Nova/PBS) - TV Review

"Great Electric Airplane Race' showed up at Toronto Public Library as a DVD. It's an area of interest to me, so I borrowed it. It turned out to be a 53 minute long production of PBS/Nova from 2021.

They open up by spending ten minutes (out of the only 53 available to them) to tell us about global warming, and why burning fossil fuels is bad. I'm well aware of this, it's why I'm watching your documentary - now stop wasting my time ... Not an auspicious beginning. Also - not a literal race, as I'd hoped, but a metaphorical one.

They work their way through several companies that are experimenting with electric planes. The most interesting thing I got out of the series is that if electric planes have a future (currently batteries are too heavy and not powerful enough to provide the range we need to replace commercial jets), things are going to look a lot different. Several of the planes were retrofits, adding electric motors to old Cessnas and the like. But the new builds - they look very, very different from current planes. It seems likely that VTOL will be part of our future, as will multiple engines on every wing.

One of my favourite stupid statements that the show made, more than once, was that there were "no fuel costs." Uh-huh - ever talked to a Tesla owner? They're not paying for gas anymore, but they do pay for electricity. And it may be less than they would have paid for gas, but it's not nothing. Another thing they said more than once was that electric planes meant "no pollution." Again, I call bullshit. No burning fuel, that's true: but old batteries are already a massive recycling problem we don't know how to handle, imagine them on the scale needed to power hundreds of thousands of jet-aircraft-equivalents.

In the end, I found this short on scientific fact and long on rhetoric. It amounted to "people are doing research! We need this! It's so cool!"