Biofuel-powered airliners shuttled passengers across the United States for the first time this week, carrying with them the dream of more sustainable aviation fuel. But so far the promise of greener aviation remains elusive, and the industry concedes it is years away from making a significant dent in the billions of gallons airlines consume each year.
It is perhaps no accident that Alaska Airlines chose Washington D.C. as the destination for Wednesday’s flight from Seattle, the first of what the airline promises will be 75 flights made using a 20 percent blend of biofuel. The flight was largely symbolic, as biofuel remains far too expensive to be practical — which is why many are looking to Uncle Sam for help.
The good news, for the industry, anyway, is just about every corner of the country has, or is developing, a sustainable source of biofuel feedstock. That could ensure greater political will to support the alternative fuel.
“The economics is going to drive it,” says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “I think the capacity of each individual region in the country to economically produce the feedstock is what’s going to drive this.”
There have been many biofuel demonstration flights in recent years, with everything from fighter jets to 747s burning the stuff. But they’ve typically been demonstration flights without passengers. That’s changing as airlines begin regularly scheduled flights. Lufthansa has flown several flights in Europe using a biofuel blend, and United Airlines made a biofuel passenger flight Monday, a first for a domestic carrier.
But Alaska is going further with a plan to make 75 biofuel-powered flights this month. The biofuel is produced by Dynamic Fuels in Louisiana using feedstock derived from used cooking oil and the byproducts from meat production.
The biofuel meets the same standards as normal jet fuel, and it can be used without any modifications to the airplane. The problem is it’s frightfully expensive. Alaska Airlines paid $16 a gallon for the biofuel, compared to about $3.15 a gallon for Jet A. The airline readily admits the high price means biofuels won’t replace jet fuel anytime soon.
Vilsack says a collaborative effort between the departments of Agriculture and Energy and the Navy to invest in advanced biofuels will help bring costs down. The funding is going toward the development of a “drop in fuel” the Navy can use in place of both diesel and jet fuel (the two are close chemical cousins).
Under the initiative, announced in August, the three agencies will invest as much as $510 million over three years to help the private sector create homegrown alternative fuels for the military and, eventually, commercial transportation. Vilsack notes the investment is aimed at providing fuel security for the Navy, but also will help commercial carriers in the long run.
“It will allow commercial aviation to be competitive with international flights as regions of the world begin to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from air traffic,” he said.
Vilsack is referring to the upcoming carbon tax the European Union will levy on airlines, charging them for a percentage of the carbon they emit flying in and out of the continent. Airlines from outside the EU oppose the idea in part because they will be charged according to the total length of the flight, not just the portion within Europe. A flight from New York to London would be charged more than a flight from Rome to London, even though the European flight emits more carbon over the continent.
It’s regulation like this that will push the industry to embrace biofuel, says Richard Gritta, an expert on aviation finance at the University of Portland in Oregon.
“I think the pressure is going to come from the EU carbon taxes and from the public,” Gritta says. “On the other side you’re going to see the price, when they start producing in large quantities, drop dramatically.”
But the price will have to come down significantly before biofuels make a meaningful dent in the amount of fuel the airline industry uses. A recent story in Aviation Week & Space Technology notes it is far cheaper for airlines to buy carbon credits than buy alternative fuels that may or may not ultimately reduce their carbon footprint.
“[T]he air transport industry may be deluding itself if it believes biofuels are the panacea for carbon footprint reduction, at least for this decade and possibly beyond,” the publication writes. “High fuel costs as well as competing demand make it unlikely that biojet will deliver the promised carbon dioxide reductions within a desired timeframe.”
Some in the industry believe that’s the wrong attitude for the long term. Billy Glover, Boeing’s managing director of environmental strategy, says buying carbon credits doesn’t address the issue of reducing an airline’s carbon emissions.
“It has to be a longer-term business decision rather than some policy that may go away in a year or five years,” Glover says. “The business decisions are being made on a longer term than a lot of the policy decisions.”
Glover adds the industry believes there is money to be made with renewable fuels, and that will be the ultimate reason production grows. The fuel also can be made with a wide range of feedstocks that can come from throughout the country, providing greater incentive for investment and helping achieve greater energy independence.
“It’s an opportunity for us to use natural resources,” Vilsack says. “Whether its woody biomass in the northwest part of the country or perennial grasses that are grown in great abundance in the southeast part of the country or agricultural waste that is available from crop production in the midwest.”
Gritta believes the industry is eight to 10 years away from widespread use of biofuels, but others in the industry say it will be far longer. But with the airlines willing to spend the money now, even those with a longer view believe broader use of sustainable fuels will happen eventually.
Photo: Jason Paur/Wired.com