British Airways embarks on new sustainable jet fuel project as UK government announces RTFO incentive
(photo: British Airways)
Tue 19 Sept 2017 – Following a UK government announcement on Friday that it will include sustainable jet fuel under its Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) incentive scheme, British Airways and renewable fuels technology company Velocys have confirmed they are to partner on a project to make a business case for a series of waste-to-jet fuel commercial scale plants in the UK. Velocys will lead an initial feasibility study and, subject to its findings and successful completion of the development stages, an investment decision could be made in 2019. The company believes a plant could be up and running two to three years after this. After the failed project with Solena for a facility near London that was going to produce renewable jet fuel for the airline through an offtake purchase agreement, British Airways won’t comment yet on investment issues or quantify the amount of fuel involved but the first plant could produce in the region of 30,000 tonnes a year, equivalent to around 9 million US gallons.
The UK sends more than 15 million tonnes of waste to landfill sites that could be significantly reduced through converting it into jet fuel, says British Airways, and also deliver reductions of more than 60% in greenhouse gas emissions and 90% in particulates compared with conventional fossil fuel. The planned plant would take “hundreds of thousands of tonnes” of household waste and deliver 60,000 tonnes of CO2 savings annually. The resulting fuel would be enough to power all BA’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner flights from London to San Jose, California and New Orleans, Louisiana for a whole year, says the airline.
“Sustainable fuels will play an increasingly critical role in global aviation, and we are preparing for that future,” commented Willie Walsh, CEO of BA’s parent company IAG. “Turning household waste into jet fuel is an amazing innovation that produces clean fuel while reducing landfill.”
The partnership will also include recycling and waste management specialist Suez, which will provide technical and operational expertise and manage the supply of feedstock to the project, and Ervington Investments affiliate Norma, a potential investor in the project. Ervington and Norma are investment arms of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and with a 29% stake, Ervington is Velocys’ largest investor.
Velocys says its Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) technology is, as of June, in commercial operation at ENVIA Energy’s gas-to-liquid plant in Oklahoma City.
“Our strategy remains highly focused on exploiting the large US market for cellulosic renewable fuels,” said Velocys CEO David Pummell. “Alongside the excellent progress we are making there, we believe that the recently announced RTFO changes will allow the UK to become a world leader in sustainable jet fuel. We are very pleased to be working with world-class partners to help execute the vision of a repeatable series of plants, offering a commercially attractive route to a highly desirable product for an industry that now demands significant greenhouse gas reduction solutions.
“This opportunity leverages further our technology, integrated plant design and skills base, and is consistent with our renewable fuels strategy of delivering integrated plant solutions, in collaboration with partners, to fulfil a real market need.”
Velocys was to supply its F-T technology for the ill-fated Solena GreenSky project that was planned to process around 575,000 tonnes of waste annually destined for landfill or incineration for conversion into 120,000 tonnes of clean-burning liquid fuels, including 50,000 tonnes of renewable jet fuel.
Dr Neville Hargreaves, VP Capital Projects UK and leader of the new project, told GreenAir that Velocys was now taking responsibility for the whole development and the outlook for such a venture was much improved since the Solena failure, especially with the RTFO change that could provide significant revenues.
“We have some very strong partners on board who are prepared to invest in the project,” he said. “The technology has also moved on. We didn’t have a commercial plant in place when the Solena project was announced in 2012 and now we do, which makes it far easier to finance a project of this nature.
“The technology is our own and we work with other companies who also own theirs to assemble the complete package. Our F-T technology, relative to others, is very suitable for this scale.”
The GreenSky plant was to be situated to the east of London on the site of an old oil refinery by the Thames Estuary in Thurrock, Essex, and was expected to supply renewable jet fuel for BA aircraft at London City Airport. Velocys and British Airways say the site of the proposed first plant has not been decided and will be considered as part of the feasibility study.
Hargreaves said it was not vital to have the plant near the airport where the fuel is to be used. “What’s critical is building it near where the waste comes from since the issue of waste transport is more important than transporting the fuel,” he said. “Obviously the fuel logistics have to make sense but ultimately it’s driven much more by availability of feedstock.”
IAG’s Walsh has previously criticised UK government policy for failing to support the development of commercial-scale sustainable aviation fuel production, citing it as a principal cause for the shelving of GreenSky and the demise of Solena.
Now, though, the government has pledged its backing for renewable jet fuels produced from sustainable eligible waste feedstocks. Three weeks ago, the Department for Transport (DfT) announced it would be providing up to £22 million ($28m) of funding towards projects to develop renewable fuels for planes and heavy goods vehicles (see article). The fund, to be matched equally by industry, is expected to help deliver up to five new plants in the UK by 2021.
The decision, which requires parliamentary approval, over the new eligibility of waste-derived renewable jet fuels is carried in a document published by the DfT on wider changes to the RTFO. Previously limited to road transport, the RTFO places a requirement on transport fuel suppliers to ensure a percentage of all road vehicle fuel is supplied from sustainable sources. Any company that supplies sustainable renewable fuel can claim Renewable Transport Fuel Certificates (RTFCs) that can be traded or sold to companies that need them to meet their RTFO obligations.
Unlike road transport, fuel suppliers would not be mandated to supply renewable jet fuel but would be able to claim RTFCs for eligible fuels that meet the sustainability criteria. The intention is to use the point at which the renewable fuel is blended with fossil fuel and certified as the point at which owners of the fuel can claim reward.
Justifying the extension, the UK government says that while supporting the ICAO agreement for a global market-based measure as “the most cost-effective way of addressing aviation emissions”, other measures, including the use of renewable fuels, were required to address long-term carbon reduction. The inclusion of renewable jet fuels under the RTFO, it says, is an opportunity of reduce emissions in a sector that is hard to decarbonise, would help bridge the gap in cost between fossil and renewable fuel and would aid investment and development of UK industry in this area.
UK industry coalition group Sustainable Aviation believes such an industry could provide between five and 12 sustainable fuel plants throughout the UK by 2030, generating £265 million ($360m) for the economy and support up to 4,400 jobs. The RTFO would provide a higher level of incentive, it said, and will extend policy certainty to 2032, which should further help attract investment into the UK.
“We welcome the publication of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation and the incentive it provides for the development of advanced, low carbon, sustainable aviation fuels in the UK,” commented Ian Jopson, Chair of Sustainable Aviation.
While the RTFO support for renewable jet fuel produced from waste feedstocks clearly applies to the project being pursued by British Airways and Velocys, this is not the case for the LanzaTech pathway supported by Virgin Atlantic that is developing technology to produce jet fuel from industrial waste gases, which the government argues is not renewable fuel but low carbon fossil fuel under its current definition.
However, Virgin Atlantic welcomed the RTFO breakthrough. “We are delighted the DfT is supporting inclusion of aviation in the RTFO – a critical step for the commercialisation of advanced, waste-based technologies, like the one we’re working on with our cleantech partner LanzaTech,” said Emma Harvey, the airline’s Head of Sustainability. “Due to another policy hurdle, this RTFO change doesn’t yet include LanzaTech’s advanced carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) approach, but we’re encouraged by the positive steps the DfT and other government departments are now taking to work with us on LanzaTech’s important breakthrough technology.
“We are also encouraged by the worldwide and UK progress towards developing commercial, sustainable jet fuels. We fully recognise the need for as many low carbon solutions we can get and are excited by the fact that it looks like we are now on the verge of a number of critical breakthroughs in this area.”
Sustainable Aviation added: “There are still some hurdles to overcome, especially in relation to new technologies that recycle carbon from waste industrial gases, and we urge the DfT to ensure the new legislation does not present a barrier to these and other emerging, ground-breaking technologies.”
Responding to the government’s RTFO policy document, WWF-UK welcomed the move away from crop-based biofuels through a 4% cap that is well below the EU limit but said the future for road transport was in electrification rather than biofuels.
“But with electric planes still some way off, it makes sense to shift truly sustainable waste-based fuels away from cars and on to planes,” said James Beard, WWF-UK specialist on biofuels and energy. “Nevertheless, this is just a sticking plaster on our soaring aviation emissions.”