Tue 26 July 2011 – Although the aviation sector has a good track record in reducing its environmental impact through efficiency gains, it is highly unlikely to reduce or even stabilise its emissions through this means alone, but biofuels present a real potential for reduction, concludes a major European study into aviation alternative fuels. However, a number of major challenges need to be faced including feedstock availability and development, and how to overcome the economic barriers for investors. The study recommends that quota mandates should be considered and suggests that auction revenues from the EU ETS be used to kick-start the process. As a first step, a low minimum goal for European aviation biofuel introduction in 2020 – a 2 per cent market penetration is proposed – should be the basis for triggering a start-up of production.
The findings are included in a final 110-page report submitted to the European Commission on the conclusion of the two-year Sustainable Way for Alternative Fuels and Energy in Aviation (SWAFEA) project, the most comprehensive study of the deployment issue to date.
In respect of aviation industry emissions reduction targets, the study finds that stabilisation of emissions at their 2020 levels will take time to be achieved, probably well beyond 2030, but is feasible with the deployment of biofuels from hydrotreated renewable jet (HRJ) and biomass-to-liquid (BTL) pathways. The 2050 target of halving emissions by 2050 compared to 2005, however, will require radically more efficient pathway solutions, such as algae.
The study, carried out by a 20-strong consortium led by French aviation research institution Onera, recommends the setting up of a European network of excellence to evaluate new fuel pathways with regard to aviation requirements. Rather than compete with standards bodies like ASTM International and Defence Standards, it should complement and interface with them and contribute to the approvals processes. In addition, the network should also include capability to consider sustainability and industrial aspects.
The need is also identified for coordination between different initiatives or R&D programmes engaged in Europe and also coordination at a political level concerning regulations or policies. The study suggests setting up a European Technology Platform that synthesises on-going activities and offers a platform for information exchange. Such a structure could be opened up to international cooperation and partnerships. Given the synergy existing for many links of the biofuel chain between the aviation and the automotive industries, it suggests the two sectors should work more closely together.
Beyond R&D, the study identifies the need for demonstration initiatives at the various steps of the fuel value chain in order to consolidate the knowledge and choice for future development, or to accelerate deployment of alternative aviation fuels. It suggests the demonstration of a regular supply of aviation biofuel to an airport, for example, would be a helpful initiative to identify and assess in a real situation all the practical issues brought on by the introduction of new fuels and pave the way for future large-scale deployment at European airports.
At a European level, there should be a harmonisation of sustainability requirements between different regulations and policies. Aviation fuel being a global commodity, an international harmonisation of sustainability regulations and policies would help and should be searched at International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) level for a worldwide application in accordance with ICAO’s resolution on climate change, suggests the study. There should be an alignment of the various lifecycle analysis methodologies and sustainability criteria in order to facilitate a worldwide certification of aviation fuel.
The report suggests research should be supported on a methodological approach of indirect land use change and associate policy measures, as well as to investigate further the environmental and societal impacts and acceptance of intensive energy biomass production.
The major economic issue for aviation biofuels is their lack of competitiveness with conventional fuel, at least in the first decade of deployment, and the changes in feedstock prices. Both biomass availability and the economics demonstrate the need for more efficient processing pathways, with higher yields and reduced costs, and for new sources of feedstocks.
To start up the production of aviation biofuels, a combination of measures will be required to achieve the initial target. In particular, an overall field-to-wing strategic plan could be an efficient approach that would push for the emergence of a number of ‘end-to-end’ projects addressing the complete production chain, from feedstock to fuel. Means of funding could include the possible use of ETS revenues complemented by a limited quota mandate policy in a ‘push and pull’ approach that guarantees the deployment takes place and also offers the distribution of funding to a wider range of players. It suggests the Commission explores the possibility of including aviation biofuels in the EU Renewable Energy Directive, which stipulates a minimum share of 10% renewable energy in transport by 2020.
BTL and HRJ pathways are currently the most mature processes for a deployment by 2020 but the higher investment required for BTL plants, although they are potentially more efficient, is another economic barrier to be overcome. Even for an institution like the European Investment Bank, reports the study, such an investment would be too risky. A way to reduce the risk and raise the capital would be to establish public-private partnerships in which investment is shared between private entities and governments, with eventually additional grants from Europe.
Although biofuels are zero rated under the ETS, this alone is not a sufficient incentive for deployment, finds the report. It estimates that EU member states will raise around €29.2 billion over the 2012-2020 period from ETS auctions.
The 2% biofuel share of the aviation fuel market by 2020 represents production of 1.25 million tonnes of aviation biofuel to be uplifted in Europe. A strategic plan that involved both subsidising aviation biofuel use for a five-year period at a cost of around €3.6 billion and half the aviation share of the overall €10 billion investment required to build the necessary two HRJ and four BTL plants could be met from ETS revenues.
The SWAFEA findings, first presented at a conference in February (see article), have already prompted the Commission into action. In June, along with Airbus, leading European airlines and biofuel producers, the Commission’s energy directorate launched the ‘Biofuel Flightpath’ initiative to speed up the introduction and commercialisation of aviation biofuels in Europe. It sets out a roadmap for achieving an annual production of two million tonnes of sustainable biofuel from European-sourced feedstock by 2020 (see article).
In separate news, the Commission last week approved the first voluntary sustainability schemes, with the aim of ensuring biofuels used in Europe meet strict sustainability criteria set out in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). The criteria covers land use issues and sets minimum levels of GHG savings over the whole production chain compared to fossil fuels. These schemes now have open access to the EU market without further verification of sustainability aspects.
Each scheme is required to monitor the whole chain and appoints independent auditors to carry out the controls. Out of 25 applications, seven EU and international schemes have been approved in the first assessment round, including the Swiss-based Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB).
A multi-stakeholder initiative, RSB has developed a global sustainability standard and certification system for biofuel production. It represents over 120 organisations globally, including farmers, regulators and NGOs. The aviation industry has thrown its weight behind the RSB as the main institution to verify the sustainability of aviation biofuels.
Sustainable Way for Alternative Fuels and Energy in Aviation (SWAFEA) Final Report (PDF)
European Commission - Biofuel Flightpath
European Commission – Sustainability Schemes for Biofuels
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