They are however quite noisy, and aren't subject to nearly as many pollution controls as road vehicles, so there's still plenty room for improvement.
The E-Fan light aircraft, designed by Airbus, looks like a suitable alternative for light aviation use.
Back in May the E-Fan took its first test flight, and now it's been shown to the public too at the massive Farnborough Air Show in the UK.
Aside from the wind roar audible in the video, the E-Fan seems near-silent--certainly not the case with even the smallest of fossil-fuel powered light aircraft.
On either side of the fuselage, mounted towards the rear, sits a 30 kW electric motor and its corresponding variable-pitch propeller.
The combined output of 60 kW equates to around 80 horsepower, enough to give the E-Fan a top speed of around 136 mph and a cruising speed, with two people aboard, of about 100 mph. The E-Fan taxis electrically too--the nose wheel features a 6 kW electric motor.
According to Transport Evolved, Airbus plans both two and four-seat versions of the E-Fan, should the prototype eventually evolve into a production model. That could happen by 2017, though we're not sure how much you'll have to save up as Airbus hasn't revealed a price point yet.
In terms of all-important range, the E-Fan still lags behind its combustion counterparts--a situation familiar to electric vehicle users whose wheels are firmly on the ground.
Airbus quotes endurance of 45 minutes to an hour, enough for 4-6 flight patterns or airfield circuits. It could, given the cruising speed, get you nicely from one local airstrip to another, though longer journeys will still be the preserve of regular aircraft until battery technology improves.
It'll be worth it when it does improve, however.
While, as mentioned earlier, large passenger aircraft can move hundreds of people large distances on comparatively little fuel, light aircraft can be quite thirsty given their low passenger numbers.
A Cessna 172--the world's most popular light aircraft--has a fuel burn rate of around nine gallons per hour, and a cruising speed of 130 knots--about 150 mph.
In that hour--using nine gallons and covering 150 miles, the Cessna's fuel consumption works out at about 17 miles per gallon. With a 56-gallon tank to fill, it offers plenty of range--but it ain't cheap and it ain't very efficient...
Author's note: A couple of commentators have pointed out that 17 mpg at a cruising speed well over 100 mph isn't actually that bad at all. Which is of course correct, as we doubt many cars would be capable of the same.
Please don't test this theory at home, though...