Action required now if alternative aviation fuels are to help meet emissions targets, concludes major European study
Fri 18 Feb 2011 – The transfer from fossil fuels to biofuels is a must if the air transport industry is to survive beyond the middle of century, was the stark message from Dirk van Vreckem of the European Commission’s mobility and transport directorate (DG MOVE) at a conference in Toulouse, France last week. He said a business-as-usual increase in aviation emissions of 150 per cent by 2050 over 1990 levels was unsustainable. The conference was held to outline the results of the major two-year feasibility and impact assessment SWAFEA study initiated by the Commission on alternative aviation fuels. However, contributors to the study pointed out the strong challenges posed if biofuels are to play an important role in helping meet industry emissions reduction targets, identifying sustainability, biomass availability and investment as key obstacles to be overcome.
“Biofuels can contribute to aviation emission reductions and diversification of supply,” said Philippe Novelli, of French aerospace research institution ONERA and coordinator of the SWAFEA (Sustainable Way for Alternative Fuels and Energy for Aviation) project. “But significant reductions will take time and require a determined effort. The introduction of biofuels must start quickly.”
He said the aviation industry global target of carbon neutral growth (CNG) from 2020 will require economic measures at least until 2030, during which time there will have to be an “extremely high” ramp up in the rate of biomass production – in the order of 14.5% per year. There is a strong need, found the study, for fuel production processes providing higher yields than presently available and for the development of additional feedstocks such as algae.
Novelli advised that mandates or quotas on aviation biofuel production should be considered, starting with a low quota to limit the impact on airline costs and implemented at a global level to avoid distortion, with policy harmonisation at ICAO level on issues such as sustainability and regulation. He also recommended the setting up of a European “network of excellence” to bring together technical expertise and provide an integrated approach to alternative aviation fuels.
Presenting a study on the sustainability of alternative fuels production pathways, Raymond Jongschaap of Plant Research International warned that as the demand for aviation biofuels increases, the potential availability of biomass is likely to decrease. He estimated that to achieve the CNG target, 52% of the total available biomass would be required for aviation fuels, rising to 76% to meet the long-term target of halving the industry’s emissions by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.
He said key challenges were to confirm whether yields obtained in the laboratory could be matched at larger scales, and whether production costs and prices could be competitive. Another concern he expressed was over the issue of sustainability certification and the different frameworks in place. He noted that the effects of indirect land use change (ILUC) were not being adequately reflected in sustainability requirements.
However, Victoria Junquera of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB), the Swiss-based multi-stakeholder body that is developing internationally approved standards in biofuel sustainability, said “the science was still not there” to calculate an ILUC factor. Junquera revealed that the RSB was planning to start sustainability certification of biofuels in April 2011, and was setting up a separate entity to perform certification services.
Dana Christensen of Altran, whose study looked at the implications of meeting the 2050 industry emissions reduction target, said the economic viability of jet biofuels would be strongly linked to the price and availability of feedstocks, even taking into account factors such as the prevailing carbon price. The target could not be met by biofuels if the cost of the biomass remained high, he maintained.
He said that between now and 2050, Europe would require 80 hydrotreated renewable jet (HRJ) or 290 biomass-to-liquid (BTL) production plants – or a combination of both – to be built in order to supply around 67 million tonnes of aviation biofuel to meet emissions reduction targets. A typical HRJ plant would have a five million tonne annual production capacity, of which 20% of production would be used for jet fuel (the rest would be taken up by other co-products such as biodiesel), and cost 2.2 billion euros. A BTL plant, on the other hand, would have a one million tonne capacity, of which 25% would produce aviation fuel, and cost 2.9 billion euros.
“To be able to realistically achieve targets, we would need to start constructing plants now, accelerate fast and keep up the pace,” said Christensen. “It will require access to unlimited cheap capital with an acceptance of initial negative returns.”
The capital costs and share of production allocated to aviation fuel was challenged by Jim Woodger of Honeywell UOP, who said his company’s analysis showed a lower cost and a quicker return could be obtained, and a higher percentage of aviation fuel output – 50 to 60% – was more realistic. Christensen responded that the percentage was down to the prevailing cost of aviation fuel at the time compared to biodiesel and where the producer could make the most money.
The issue of balancing aviation biofuel requirements with ground transportation’s biodiesel needs was raised a number of times during the conference with suggestions the aviation and car industries should work together as they shared the same problems and objectives. Quotas or mandates could also, for example, be applied at EU and global levels and lower biofuel to kerosene blends could be applied in the initial stages of development.
Kyriakos Maniatis of the European Commission’s DG Energy said the EU had put in place the Renewable Energy Directive which stipulated a 10% requirement of the use of renewable fuels in transportation by 2020, but Member States had been generally slow to implement the commitment. He urged aviation biofuel stakeholders to approach individual EU governments to help with investment and deployment, as they were expected to submit biofuel project proposals to the Commission.
Maniatis stated the Commission was looking at ways to get funds from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme to support the development of biofuel technology. He said the industry should not expect cheap biofuels for at least another decade.
Jane Hupe, Chief of ICAO’s Environmental Unit, said the UN agency had a role as a facilitator in the promotion of aviation biofuels amongst its 190 member states. The action plans that states would be submitting under the agreement reached at ICAO to reduce international aviation emissions would provide a great opportunity for the worldwide development of aviation alternative fuels, she said. As financing was crucial, she believed engaging the international and regional banks would be an important function for ICAO. Hupe said ICAO would also have to address whether it had an international regulatory role in alternative fuel deployment because of specification and safety issues.
“We are fully committed on alternative fuels and want to see action because we have a commitment to reduce emissions and reach our goals,” she said.
David Batchelor of the European Commission’s DG MOVE said bilateral agreements being negotiated between the EU and other countries were including environment provisions, with specific references to cooperation on alternative fuels, such as last year’s second stage agreement with the United States. He said there were ongoing negotiations with Brazil on a comprehensive air transport agreement in which the EU was keen to include environmental provisions and collaboration on alternative fuels. He said the EU had recently launched a civil aviation cooperation project with China that also includes environmental aspects.
The EU’s research and development framework programmes also provided for international collaboration on aviation that can also cover alternative fuels, he said.
He called for international coordination to avoid duplication of efforts to develop alternative aviation fuels and, as biofuels crossed various domains, the interests of the aviation sector should be taken into account.
Closing the conference, the Commission’s Mobility and Transport Director-General, Matthias Ruete, said that on a business-as-usual basis, transport will make up 50% of all the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2050. “We will have to find alternative fuels,” he said. “We will have to put the right policies in place, look at how we involve the private sector, how much public funding will be required and how much regulation will be needed.”
Ruete revealed the EU would develop a future strategy that would include all forms of transportation, including aviation, and involve international partners. He said he hoped the SWAFEA study would provide a roadmap and a platform for the development of aviation alternative fuels and help guide the policy makers.
The final report of the SWAFEA consortium study is due to be published in April.