Momentum gathering towards aviation biofuels commercialisation as US and European policy-makers signal support
US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addresses Alternative Aviation Fuels Showcase at Paris Air Show (photo: Kallman)
Mon 27 June 2011 – The momentum driving the introduction of aviation biofuels received a significant boost with a number of initiatives and events taking place at last week’s Paris Air Show. While the transatlantic biofuel flights conducted by Boeing and Honeywell attracted wide attention and media column inches (see article), it was the announcements behind the scenes that offered more substance on progress towards a viable alternative jet fuel industry. A high-profile visit by the US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, along with officials from the US Department of Commerce and the European Commission, to the Alternative Aviation Fuels Showcase taking place in one of the exhibition halls added weight to growing optimism from the aviation and biofuels sectors that policy-makers are getting behind a drive to implement a coherent strategy towards large-scale commercialisation of sustainable aviation biofuels production in Europe and the US.
Vilsack told an audience of airline and aerospace executives that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were making major concerted efforts to find alternative aviation fuel opportunities. “We understand how significant this is to the industry,” he said.
“The question is whether there is a sustainable way for us to meet aviation’s fuel needs of the future. The USDA is excited about the opportunities presented by the requirement for aviation biofuels as it provides an opportunity for farmers to diversify income, and to take non-productive land which can be used for fuel feedstocks.”
He said five ‘virtual’ research centres would be collaborating with universities and the private sector to identify potentially efficient and workable feedstocks.
“We also recognise that in order for this to work we must have the refineries and the capacity to produce these fuels so we are working through the Farm Bill programme to provide loan guarantees to companies to assure their bankers as they make the several hundred million dollar investment to build commercial-size biorefineries that they have a partner in the USDA to provide the security to reduce the risk,” he said.
Vilsack added that this would in turn create job opportunities in both the construction and the operation of the facilities. “This is also important because they will likely be located in rural areas across the country and many of America’s farm producers today require off-farm income to keep their farms.
“We also have to incentivise the [feedstock] producers to think differently about their own farming operations and for that reason we established the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) to provide resources to farmers to produce these new feedstocks on their lands and offset some of the expense of planting and growing a new crop, and over the next couple of years make it profitable for them to do this.”
He said BCAP project awards were being made across a number of states as part of a five-year commitment, with each project covering areas of roughly 50,000 acres (20,200 hectares) and the growing of feedstocks including camelina and miscanthus.
“It is an exciting partnership we have with the aviation industry,” said Vilsack. “We see this as an extraordinary opportunity [for biofuel technology companies] to ‘out-innovate’ the competition. Once you have innovation, it fuels competition and creates efficiency and cost-effectiveness.”
Early last year, the USDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Navy Department that envisions 50% of naval fuel needs are met by advanced biofuels. “As the military learns how to use these fuels it will have an obvious impact on commercial aviation,” he suggested.
At the end of March, President Obama requested his Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy and the Navy to investigate how they can work together to speed up the development of drop-in biofuels. “Competitively-priced drop-in biofuels could help meet the fuel needs of the Navy, as well as the commercial aviation and shipping sectors,” he said in a speech.
Vilsack said that as a result, a number of new programmes would be revealed over the next couple of months and said the President would be making an important announcement “within the next 30 days or so”.
Richard Altman, Executive Director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) told GreenAir that he expected significant implications for the aviation biofuels sector to result from the announcement.
If national security and jobs are the prime motivators for growing a biofuels industry in the United States, meeting carbon emission reduction targets are the main concern of European policy-makers and there is a growing acceptance within the European Commission that sustainable biofuels may provide a real opportunity to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint in the longer term. There is also recognition in European circles that other transport modes can move to other renewable energy sources that are not available to commercial aircraft and so the development of aviation biofuels must be supported as a matter of urgency.
During the Paris Air Show, the European Commission, in conjunction with Airbus and European airlines and biofuel producers, launched a new initiative to speed up commercialisation of aviation biofuels in Europe. The European Advanced Biofuels Flightpath is targeting the supply of two million tonnes (around 660 million US gallons or 2.5 billion litres) of sustainable biofuels into the EU civil aviation sector by 2020.
The initiative is the culmination of discussions since earlier this year involving the Commission’s energy and transport directorates together with representatives from the aviation and biofuels industry and NGOs.
The Flightpath commits members to support and promote the production, storage and distribution of sustainably produced drop-in biofuels for use in aviation and establish appropriate financial mechanisms to support the construction of industrial ‘first of a kind’ advanced biofuel production plants. More specifically, the participants will:
facilitate the development of standards for drop-in biofuels and their certification for use in commercial aircraft;
work together with the full supply chain to further develop worldwide accepted sustainability certification frameworks;
agree on biofuel offtake arrangements over a defined period of time and at a reasonable cost;
promote appropriate public and private actions to ensure the market uptake of paraffinic biofuels by the aviation sector;
establish financing structures to facilitate the realisation of second-generation biofuel projects;
accelerate targeted research and innovation for advanced biofuel technologies, especially algae; and
take concrete action to inform European citizens of the benefits of replacing kerosene with certified sustainable biofuels.
The Flightpath sets short-term (up to three years from now), mid-term (4-7 years) and long-term (up to 2020) objectives, with an aim to start construction of the first series of second-generation aviation biofuel plants within three years and to become operational by 2015-16. By 2018, the plan is for one million tonnes of hydrotreated sustainable oils and 200,000 tonnes of synthetic aviation biofuels to reach the aviation market.
A second series of plants producing fuels from algae and pyrolytic oils are targeted to be in operation by 2020, producing a further 800,000 tonnes of aviation biofuels for use at most EU airports.
During a presentation at the Alternative Aviation Fuels Showcase, Kyriakos Maniatis from the Commission’s energy directorate said two workshops were being set up to take place in Brussels in the autumn to bring stakeholders together with financial institutions and a technical workshop was planned for September to map all potential technologies.
Maniatis said there were a number of important navigation points along the Flightpath that would need to be addressed including ensuring sustainability criteria was in line with the EU Renewables Directive stipulation for a 60% reduction requirement in biofuel lifecycle emissions from 2020; seeking the involvement of the European Investment Bank in providing equity capital; and reaching agreements between aviation biofuel buyers and suppliers on prices and contract lengths.
Commenting on the launch of the initiative, the European Commissioner for Energy, Günter Oettinger, said: “This is a unique opportunity to create the first industrial venture ever introducing sustainable biofuels for commercially competitive operations. The Commission therefore fully supports all efforts in this direction and will actively contribute to their success. They are fully in line with our European Strategic Energy Technology Plan.”
The Commission’s SET-Plan was endorsed by the European Parliament and EU heads of state and governments in February and will be used as the basis for the working methods and governance of the Biofuels Flightpath.
Supporting the initiative’s aim of speeding up commercialisation, Airbus CEO Tom Enders said: “Our catalyst role is to bring together stakeholders such as advanced biofuel producers, airlines and lawmakers in value chains, in order to achieve this common goal more quickly. Only by working together can we meet our ambitious target to make air transportation truly sustainable.”
Europe’s largest airlines – Air France-KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways – are also involved with the initiative. Air France-KLM CEO Pierre Henri Gourgeon said the Flightpath was giving “the right signal” for the emergence of a European supply chain.
British Airways CEO Keith Williams commented: “Biofuels represent a great opportunity for the aviation industry to reduce its impact on climate change. This announcement will provide the incentive needed for European airlines to accelerate their plans to use biofuels to power their fleets. We are already embarking on plans for Europe’s first sustainable jet fuel plant and hope that initiatives such as this will encourage others to follow our lead.”
European aviation biofuel initiatives are indeed now coming thick and fast and two more were announced during the Paris Air Show involving KLM and SkyNRG, and a collaboration between the civil aviation authorities of Italy and Spain. The latter involves Italy’s ENAC together with Spain’s AESA and SENASA in which they will jointly work on the research and development of sustainable alternative aviation fuels, in particular on certification and testing.
The Biofuels Flightpath is likely to lean on input from the Sustainable Way for Alternative Fuels and Energy for Aviation (SWAFEA) study instigated by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Transport and Energy – now separated into DG Energy (DG ENER) and DG Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE) – to investigate the feasibility and impact of alternative aviation fuels, and evaluate potential new energy sources. The results of the two-year study, lead by French aerospace R&D body Onera and involving European and international industry and research partners, were passed to the Commission following an international conference in February.
According to Doris Schröcker, Policy Officer at DG MOVE, the final report should be published very shortly.