Aviation leaders call for more support from government and major oil companies for alternative aviation fuels
Fri 30 May 2014 – Support and cooperation from governments and the major oil companies is required to kick-start large-scale production of sustainable alternative aviation fuels, industry leaders told a Berlin conference last week. Such fuels are needed to reach industry emissions reduction targets and the European Flightpath 2050 goals, said Dr Jean Botti, Chief Technical Officer for Airbus. Dr Matthew Ganz, President of Boeing Germany and Northern Europe, said his company’s goal of 1% of total fuel consumption being made up from bio-derived sources by the end of 2015 was achievable but serious challenges remained at producing them at an affordable cost and ensuring the whole fuel cycle was sustainable. Botti and Lufthansa Executive Board Member Harry Hohmeister criticised the major oil companies for not doing more to engage and invest in alternative aviation fuels. Botti revealed Airbus was working on a long-term project to develop a hybrid electric regional passenger aircraft that could be in service by 2050.
Botti said the Flightpath 2050 goals called for reductions in CO2 emissions per passenger-km of 75%, NOx of 90% and perceived noise by 65%. He said it was a huge task and Airbus was looking beyond alternative fuels to other technologies such as materials and propulsion. “What powers aircraft today may not power aircraft in the future,” he told delegates at the ‘Future of Alternative Fuels’ conference organised by the aviation industry biofuel organisation Aviation Initiative for Renewable Energy in Germany (aireg).
He said Airbus had come up with an ‘electric roadmap’ to work towards electric propulsion that would involve a multi-decade, Franco-German programme with teams in Munich, Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse, and starting with an all-electric two-seater aircraft, the E-Fan, powered by two electric motors. The plane is a first step – the beginning of the learning curve, said Botti – towards his vision of a hybrid regional aircraft capable of carrying 70-80 passengers. Such an aircraft would use electric power for take-off and landing, so avoiding noise problems at airports, and conventional liquid fuels would be used during flight and to recharge the batteries. Despite tremendous progress in the field of battery performance, the technology was nowhere near enough at present, he conceded. He added that aircraft the size of an A320 and larger would be running on liquid fuels for the foreseeable future, so biofuels were extremely important.
“Electric propulsion is complementary to our alternative fuels research and will help us to reach our goals,” he said. “I cannot express enough the importance of cooperation in these long-term challenges. Without it, Europe will not remain a leader.”
He said alternative fuels and electric propulsion shared similar challenges: both were cost and resource intensive, and had availability and scaling-up issues.
“Challenge breeds innovation but it will also require government support. Governments across Europe have an important role to play on how we reach these goals,” he said. “We need the correct policies and incentives to make it attractive for firms, big and small, to carry out the research. Each EU country cannot be the best at everything – resources should not be spread too thinly and we need to be focused, not fragmented.”
He said large aircraft manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing were used to managing complex supply chains but developing alternative fuels required the support of the fuel industry. “We don’t make the fuel – we need someone else to do it, and have the willingness to do it. It’s time for the petroleum companies to truly engage and invest. In the last five years I have not seen one such company coming to see me with the attitude of wanting to make this an industry.”
In a panel discussion, Hohmeister said he believed the aviation industry would be relying on liquid fuels for the next 50 years and welcomed German federal government commitment to the introduction of aviation biofuels but added: “It’s not enough to pay lip service.”
Incentives, he said, were needed in the same way as they were applied to solar power, wind energy and electric cars. He pointed to the lead the United States was taking with the FAA, industry and government working together to push its aviation biofuel programme.
“This is also an important issue of energy security and independence and I call upon not only the politicians but also the oil companies to do their share and not just sit back and say they can do something but only at a given price,” he said. “Perhaps it needs some form of seed funding or incentive to start producing, say, ten to twenty thousand tonnes of aviation biofuels that may encourage more competition.”
Dr Susan Jenkins, Managing Director of the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, said that unlike the ground transportation sector, the end-users – the airlines – were driving biofuel use, which was a positive sign. However, she added, government policy would be the key.
“Incentives are critical to getting aviation biofuel production started,” she said. “If you talk to the large energy companies they say they can’t depend on a business model that needs a tax break to keep it going. But we do need something that pulls the switch.
“The problem for the oil companies is that these are low-margin products so a small part of this market is not going to interest them. That’s why they are going for ground transportation fuels because that’s where the profit margins add up and make a difference.
“BP, for example, was planning a lignocellulosic biorefinery in Florida that was going to require around $500 million in investment but when they looked at the shaky government policies in place, they weren’t convinced it was going to be a successful venture.
“They are not sure there is enough margin in the aviation side to incentivise them.”
She warned statements over the past few years from biofuel companies that they were close to commercialisation when little had happened at scale had not been helpful. “We mustn’t oversell the case otherwise people will doubt that we’ll ever get there. This is going to be a lot longer process than we may accept or admit.”
Also speaking at the conference, Rainer Bomba, the German State Secretary for Transport, said energy transition and environmental protection would be central challenges for decades to come and would determine government and business planning.
Biofuels, he said, would be just one possible solution to reducing transport emissions. “However,” he cautioned, “we are limited by the volumes available of biofuels that are produced. There is high demand for transport fuels and there are limited areas to grow crops for renewable energy. The food versus fuel debate is no doubt going to continue and we cannot say today that biofuels are going to be the one and only option. I do believe, though, that they are going to play an important role in the future.”
He said the German federal government would support research activities into new technologies. “It makes no sense at all, though, for government to provide direct subsidies. For us, it makes much more sense to support and bolster R&D without being biased towards projects following one particular technology. The government’s fuel and mobility strategy at the moment encompasses a biofuel component and this we will pursue in conjunction with our partners in the years to come.
“Biofuels will be important for aviation, especially as other transport sectors will be able to use other sources of renewable energy. We are thinking how we can provide funding and support.”
On the aircraft noise issue, Bomba, who sits on the supervisory board of the much-delayed new Berlin airport, said huge amounts of money were being spent on noise protection and insulation around airports.
“In Berlin alone, we have spent over €750 million ($1bn) and in Frankfurt the figure is €200 million ($270m). I can tell you that such a large airport will never again be built so close to a big city. The stringent safeguards in place do not make it affordable anymore.”