Harbour Air, the largest seaplane operator in North America, is charting a course to become the world’s first all-electric seaplane carrier, with test flights of a retrofitted de Havilland Beaver set to take to the skies over Vancouver this year.

The popular Victoria-Vancouver airline is partnering with Seattle-based electric aviation company magniX to transform its entire fleet of seaplanes into zero-emission e-planes, powered by batteries and a 750-horsepower electric motor.

“The prototype we could have in the air in a few months,” Harbour Air founder and CEO Greg McDougall told CFAX 1070 on Tuesday. “It’s becoming totally economically viable.”

The first flights will have a limited range of about 30 minutes flying time, with 30 minutes of additional power left in reserve.

While such a limited range is impractical for most air carriers, the CEO of magniX says it’s an ideal fit for B.C.’s short-hop Harbour Air.

“The range is not an issue for them,” CEO Roei Ganzarski told CTV News. “Today’s batteries can provide them exactly the range that they need to operate.”

Weighing approximately one tonne, those batteries will sit below the passenger floor of the de Havilland Beaver, where liquid jet fuel is stored today.

The total cost of the Harbour Air retrofit is a company secret, but Ganzarski says the switch to electric propulsion will pay off in the long term. 

“If you look at a five-year lifecycle of operating a traditional gas engine, together with all the significant maintenance that’s required for that kind of engine because they’re so complex, and all of the fuel that’s burned, it is significantly cheaper to convert and operate an electric aircraft,” Ganzarski said.

Harbour Air flies more than 500,000 passengers on 30,000 commercial flights annually between Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Whistler, Seattle, Tofino, Salt Spring Island, the Sunshine Coast and Comox.

“Harbour Air first demonstrated its commitment to sustainability by becoming the first fully carbon-neutral airline in North America in 2007, through the purchase of carbon offsets,” McDougall said in a news release Tuesday.

“We are once again pushing the boundaries of aviation by becoming the first aircraft to be powered by electric propulsion.”

The six-passenger de Havilland Beaver is the workhorse of Harbour Air’s 42-aircraft fleet, flown on all routes the company operates.

While the first test flight of an electric Beaver is scheduled for takeoff later this year, the timeline for a fleet-wide rollout of the battery-powered planes is dependent on clearing all regulatory safeguards.

Ganzarski said the all-electric de Havilland Beaver, outfitted with the magniX engine, is expected to achieve commercial certification with North American regulators by 2021.

While hybrid fuel-electric engines have been in development among major aerospace manufacturers for years, Ganzarski said leap-frogging over the bridge technology to full-electric propulsion is a question of priorities.

“We believe electric is the future of aviation,” he said. “Going hybrid simply says that for the next 10 to 15 years, we would have to support operators with old and antiquated technology."