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Aviation Biofuels Ready for Takeoff

Aviation Biofuels Ready for Takeoff


Manager of Forest2Market’s Bioenergy and Biochemicals practice, Stan Parton recently wrote that the US government must level the playing field if biobased energy is to compete with fossil based energy in the future. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened. The delays and uncertainty that have plagued the application of the RFS have done more damage to the bourgeoning advanced biofuels market than good; while the legislation was designed to encourage growth in the biofuels market, the implementation process has turned it into a constraint instead. Despite governmental impediment, however, the free market is finding ways to keep these pioneering energy sectors moving forward.

The aviation industry is currently leading the way by voluntarily making strides to implement the commercial-scale use of advanced biofuels. Earlier this year, we covered the NARA/Alaska Airlines partnership that will utilize wood-based biofuels in the future. Considering the fact that US air carriers alone have used over 10 billion gallons of jet fuel year-to-date, there is a tremendous opportunity for this industry to lead the transition towards renewable fuels. To get an idea for the larger scope and influence of the aviation industry, consider the following: In 2014, aviation celebrated 100 years of transporting commercial passengers, moving over 65 billion people, supporting 58 million jobs and creating $2.4 trillion in global GDP per year.

Leading by Example

The aviation industry has been proactively engaged in implementing the use of biofuels, and many of the technical challenges have been overcome and much of the certification work has been achieved to make it a reality.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is the trade association for the world’s airlines, representing 260 airlines or roughly 83% of total global air traffic. The association notes that, “IATA member airlines and the wider aviation industry are collectively committed to ambitious emissions reduction goals. Sustainable alternative aviation jet fuels (currently, mostly biojet fuels), have been identified as one of the key elements in helping achieve these goals. They are the only low-carbon fuels available for aviation in the short to mid term.”

The airline industry has been instrumental in advancing technical certification for biofuels, which have been used on more than 1,700 passenger flights since 2011. Test flights have proven that biofuels work and can be mixed with existing jet fuel. Commercialization and scaling of the fuel supply is the next step. What’s at stake when this happens?

Benefits of Aviation Biofuel

Reduced Dependence on Fossil Energy

Commercial-scale production of sustainable aviation biofuels can augment the existing supply of fuel to the airline industry. IATC notes that, “As competition for petroleum-based products intensifies due to increased demand from other industry sectors across the globe and the possible scarcity of this non-renewable resource in future decades, there are concerns that aviation may find it difficult to meet its energy needs over time.” In addition, the fact that alternative jet fuel production facilities don’t need to be located in the same areas as traditional refineries allows for greater geographic diversification of production and nimbleness within the supply chain.

Regional Economic Expansion

Commercial-scale production of aviation biofuels has the potential to generate employment and economic opportunities on a global basis, especially in rural areas where feedstocks are traditionally cultivated and processed.

Reduced Emissions

Beyond the reduced dependence on fossil energy, the environmental benefits are numerous. Aviation biofuels derived from renewable and sustainable sources including wood and waste biomass have the potential to reduce the overall carbon footprint by around 80% over their full lifecycle vs. conventional jet fuels. In addition, ITAC notes: “In 2012, air transport produced 689 million tonnes of CO2, around 2% of global CO2 emissions. IATA recognizes the need to address the global challenge of climate change and adopted a set of ambitious targets to mitigate CO2 emissions from air transport:bio_fuel_plant_03

  • An average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020;
  • A cap on net aviation CO2 emissions from 2020 (carbon-neutral growth); and
  • A reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.”

While these are aggressive targets, the net results could have a substantial impact on aviation carbon emissions while providing economic stimulus to a sustainable and renewable energy sector. Further, Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) noted that:

  • One third of airline operating costs is spent on fuel, up from 13% in 2001. The proportion is likely to keep rising as fuel prices rise.
  • If commercial aviation were to get 6% of its fuel supply from biofuels by 2020, its overall carbon footprint would be reduced by 5%.

Fuel costs for this industry are substantial; bolstering the fuel portfolio with viable biofuels will ease some of these costs and supply constraints while reducing overall emissions.


Demonstrated Success

While the renewables market for aviation fuels is quite diverse at this point—as is often the case when a market is in its infancy—there are a number of viable feedstock options that are currently being utilized, including used cooking oils and fats, algaes and crop wastes just to name a few. Woody biomass from forest residues will also play an important role as a dependable, sustainable and abundant feedstock as this industry grows, and as the following initiatives demonstrate.

NARA/Alaska Airlines

As we noted in our earlier coverage of the NARA/Alaska Airlines partnership, the USDA-funded project to convert and use post-harvest wood residues to manufacture bio-jet fuel from wood lignin is unique within the renewables industry. NARA’s mission is “to provide stakeholders, interested in creating a forest residuals to bio-jet industry, with regional solutions that are economically viable, socially acceptable, and meet the high environmental standards of the Pacific Northwest.” To that end, the Alliance and its industry partners seek not only to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, but also to augment sustainable economic development in rural communities located throughout the Pacific Northwest that rely heavily upon the forest products industry.

NARA is currently producing 1,000 gallons of cellulosic-based bio-jet fuel from Northwest forest residues, and regional aviation partner Alaska Airlines will be flying a demonstration flight next year utilizing NARA-produced cellulosic biofuel. The flight is representative of the Alliance’s mission of reducing fossil fuel emissions, and it symbolizes the growing interest in alternative fuels produced from renewable resources.

Boeing/Canadian Aviation Industry

Boeing, University of British Columbia (UBC) and SkyNRG, with support from Canada's aviation industry that includes Boeing, Air Canada, WestJet, Bombardier as well as other stakeholders, are collaborating to turn leftover branches, sawdust and other forest-industry waste into sustainable aviation biofuel. SkyNRG is the global market leader for sustainable jet fuel, having supplied biofuel to more than 20 carriers worldwide.

A recent study by UBC found that aviation biofuel made from woody biomass could meet 10 percent (roughly 46 million gallons) of British Columbia's annual jet fuel demand. This renewable source of energy can also supply biofuel to other ground and marine vehicles, saving approximately 1 million tons of CO2 emissions per year on a life cycle basis across the transportation sector. Using sustainably produced biofuel reduces lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions by 50 to 80 percent compared to conventional petroleum fuel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

"Sustainable aviation biofuel will play a critical role in reducing aviation's carbon emissions over the long term," noted Julie Felgar, managing director of Environmental Strategy & Integration, Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "Canada is in a terrific position to leverage its sustainable forests to make environmental progress for its aviation industry and other transport sectors."


Industry Challenges          

Not unlike other biobased energy sectors, aviation biofuels also face market challenges that ultimately must be solved by policy evolution; these products need to be able to compete with traditional fuels on a level economic playing field.

IATC states that, “In the absence of a global solution to aviation’s emissions, the air transport industry will continue to be exposed to the consequences of uncoordinated policy measures. Already today, it is estimated that $7 billion in ‘environmental’ charges are levied on the industry, out of a total of around $12 billion in charges and taxes related to fuel uplift or emissions. In contrast, the implementation of a single global market-based measure would rationalize administrative and reporting requirements and be much more environmentally and economically effective.”

The bottom line is that global governmental support and investment are essential to achieve the industry's climate and cost-cutting goals from sustainable aviation biofuels. While this support isn’t likely to be uniform, these are issues that need be addressed in time. In the interim, global policy advocates and the investment community must continue to support (or at least not impede) the voluntary markets for biobased energies and fuels. Until then, as Todd Jones from the Center for Resource Solutions recently pointed out, the voluntary market must remain a priority. That the aviation industry is voluntarily leading the charge for commercial-scale biofuels and policy initiatives that will support these fuels is promising for the future.

Renewable Fuel Standards and Wood Biomass Guide