Radical thinking and technology breakthroughs needed to meet aviation's long-term carbon reduction goal
Sun 18 Oct 2015 – The commercialisation and uptake of sustainable aviation biofuels might take longer than was previously hoped but patience and a long-term view was urged by industry experts at the recent Global Sustainable Aviation Summit in Geneva. ATAG Executive Director Michael Gill said around 20 airlines, which together had so far carried out over 2,000 biofuel flights, had shown leadership by committing to the development of an important energy supply and were leading the way for airlines. Representatives from United Airlines and Cathay Pacific said they had been motivated to separately invest in a US biofuel company by the need to accelerate progress in growing an aviation biofuels industry and to provide support for those companies seeking initial capital for projects. Another session at the conference heard that achieving the industry’s long-term carbon reduction goal would require both continuous incremental efficiency gains and radical breakthroughs in technologies.
Gill said all airlines should take note of the long-term perspective that those airlines pioneering sustainable alternative fuels were taking. “We are currently in a temporary period of low fuel prices, but the cost of oil is extremely volatile and will increase at some point in the future,” he told industry delegates. “We have an opportunity now to secure our energy future and that is why I urge you all to take a long-term view, looking out to 15 or 20 years’ time.”
Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of advanced biofuel company LanzaTech, said the long road towards commercial-scale aviation biofuels was a combination of the number of steps required in the technology development process, which included a rigorous ASTM certification programme requiring large quantities of fuel for testing purposes, and the considerable amount of finance needed to build the first commercial facility.
“Once you have successfully passed through this ‘valley of death’, the second facility becomes easier,” she said. “The good news is that tremendous progress has been made and the aviation industry has shown its commitment to buying large volumes of fuels that don’t yet exist. There is a level of knowledge and collaboration that I haven’t seen in another industry.”
Mark Watson, Head of Sustainable Development for the Swire Group, parent company of Cathay Pacific, said the airline’s initial move into sustainable biofuels was driven by the challenge of the carbon-neutral growth from 2020 goal and, as a predominantly long-haul carrier, to mitigate the substantial and volatile cost of conventional jet fuel.
“We started this whole endeavour back in 2008 and hired a specialist in our fuel team as our biofuels lead, but we soon found how hard it was going to be,” he said. “Around 2010, there was something of a ‘gold rush’ around crops such as camelina and jatropha, along with a pressure on airlines to invest in projects. However, as we started to understand the challenges, for example on sustainability, we realised there were huge risks in this whole area. One of the biggest challenges we faced was finding the right partner and the right project.”
In August 2014, Cathay Pacific eventually made a strategic move to go further than just enter an offtake agreement and instead took an equity investment in US municipal solid waste (MSW) to renewable biofuels company Fulcrum Energy, which has secured federal government loan guarantees towards the construction of its first commercial-scale facility near Reno, Nevada.
Watson said the airline had been impressed with the aviation biofuels infrastructure already in place in the United States in terms of the support and appetite from government and by groups such as Airlines for America (A4A) and the Commercial Alternative Aviation Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). Another factor in the decision had been the investment by Oneworld partner British Airways in the Solena MSW project in London. As part of a bigger group with other industrial interests that included marine and ground transportation, he said the investment in Fulcrum could be seen in a wider context than purely an airline decision.
He added the comparatively low cost of conventional jet fuel at present had no influence on biofuel investment decisions. “Our company takes a long-term view so the price of oil doesn’t come into the equation,” he said. “It’s about being future-proofed as a business and making sure we play our part in the carbon-neutral growth of the airline sector.”
Angela Foster-Rice, Managing Director Environmental Affairs and Sustainability at United Airlines, which followed Cathay as an investor in Fulcrum in June this year, said biofuel companies were struggling to raise initial capital. “It’s very hard for them and unless airlines can demonstrate to investors that there truly is an interest, it’s going to be difficult to get this industry up and running,” she said.
It had not been an easy decision for United to invest “millions of dollars” in a biofuels company but it had been helpful to have Cathay Pacific already on board.
“For a company to vertically integrate into the supply chain, particularly when it’s not your core competency, takes a lot of discussion and leadership,” she said. “You need to be committed and you need to start now.”
Olav Mosvold Larsen of Norwegian airport operator Avinor said there was a huge role for airports in the development of aviation biofuels.
“There are a few airlines that have done a lot to speed up the process and there are many others that are not doing much, maybe because they are not big enough or don’t have interested management,” he said. “We looked at what part we could play and saw there was an important role in the fuel value chain as we have good relations with the fuel suppliers, authorities and industry. We can connect the dots.”
As well as within, he said, there needed to be strong collaboration with those outside the aviation industry, such as with the fuel producers, government, NGOs and the biomass suppliers. “Without them, it will be much harder to reach the goals.”
The panellists agreed that each region would have to tap into local sources of biomass, whether it be sugarcane in Brazil, woody waste in Scandinavia and parts of the United States, used cooking oil in Asia, industrial waste gases in China or MSW in large cities. “Without every solution we will not get to scale,” said LanzaTech’s Holmgren.
Boeing’s Managing Director Environmental Strategy, Julie Felgar, said the aviation industry’s first priority had to be safety and to ensure biofuels were certified to rigorous standards but agreed with Larsen that it was also important “to start a conversation” with multiple stakeholders outside the aviation sector.
“Aviation biofuels is a brand new industry and I would caution people to be patient,” she added. “There are a lot of smart people working on this – it’s coming.”
To achieve the sector’s long-term goal of a 50% reduction in aviation emissions by 2050 compared with 2005, paradigm shifts will be required for an industry used to 20-25-year commercial aircraft lifespans if new technologies are going to be adopted quickly enough over the next 35 years, said panellists in a technology session.
“The technologies that are being developed at the moment are already contributing to very significant changes in fuel efficiency. Just replacing the current engine version of the Airbus A320, for example, with the neo version will gain a 20% fuel improvement – this is a big step,” said Sébastien Remy, Airbus Head of Innovations. “But if you want to meet the long-term goal then we will need both incremental continuous improvements and disruptive changes.”
In addition to advances in aircraft technology there would also be a requirement for radical changes in the air traffic management infrastructure, argued John-Paul Clarke, Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. There were already things that could be done that would have significant benefits, he suggested, like closer spacing between aircraft.
Capt. David Morgan, Chief Flight Operations & Safety Officer for Air New Zealand, had doubts on whether the long-term target could be met.
“The short-term goals probably can be achieved through using existing technologies, and there are other disruptive technologies that will come, but I don’t believe that these will be brought to market in time to deliver the 2050 goal,” he said. “The reasons for this are the natural conservatism that exists in the industry, the huge capital infrastructure costs and the legacy thinking of the ATC community and those governments that are responsible for them.
“We have to remain constructively dissatisfied with the thinking at the moment and challenge and provoke the outcomes we need.”