SPECIAL REPORT / A leading British aviation group Wednesday (16 July) called for immediate action to develop alternative jet fuels while seeking to skirt the controversy that has forced the European Union to reconsider biofuels targets for motor transport.
The Sustainable Aviation Council urges a mix of government regulatory action and private investment to produce alternatives to petroleum, saying biofuels could contribute to the EU’s climate policy goals, and fulfill the industry’s pledge to halve its carbon emissions by 2050.
“The most critical period in terms of developing alternative fuels is now,” Jonathon Counsell, chair of Sustainable Aviation and the head of environment at British Airways, said at the Farnborough International Airshow in England. The trade group released a paper - “Fuelling the future” - that says developing new sources for jet fuel “will create jobs, increase fuel security and establish the UK as a centre for sustainable aviation fuels”.
The group calls for some $6 billion (€4.4 billion) in investment over 15 years in the refining capacity of Britain alone, to produce liquid energy from agricultural waste, fermented sugars and other sources that could be mixed with conventional fuels.
In comments to EurActiv, council members also urged all EU governments to “level the playing field” by extending to the aviation industry incentives such as those now given to support alternative power for ground transport. They also urged additional emphasis on electric mobility, in order to free up refining capacity for alternative airplane fuels.
EU goes in reverse on biofuels
Although shown to lower carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions from engines, traditional biofuels are politically explosive. Biofuels have been blamed for food shortages and price spikes, deforestation and land degradation.
During a round of spiralling food prices in 2012, a top UN human rights official urged both the EU and United States to scrap their subsidies for biofuels, citing their impact on food supplies, particularly in developing nations.
Mounting criticism prompted the EU to reconsider its 10% biofuel target in ground transportation by 2020, although national energy ministers and the European Commission differ on how much to cut the target.
In a bid to skirt the food-versus-food debate, the Sustainable Aviation Council’s “Fuelling the Future” paper calls for the development of energy sources that do not compete with food supplies, contribute to tropical deforestation or harm biodiversity. It also seeks public input before developing a carbon-reduction “roadmap”.
“There is a lot of criticism around the issue of biofuels,” Counsell told journalists. “We are very aware and cognisant of that issue. This is a very live issue around the world, particularly here in the EU.”
Price, supply concerns
Airplane fuel prices have remained volatile since they hit historic peaks in 2008, with recent spike driven by unrest in Iraq and Libya. Airlines are pressuring their suppliers to rethink the need for improving the efficiency of current aircraft, as well as exploring the development of alternative fuels.
Jet fuel accounts for 40 to 50% of airline operating costs, up from single-digit figures a generation ago, industry officials say.
European carriers are particularly sensitive to fuel price spikes, because of narrower profit margins due to labour and fuel costs that are typically higher than the rest of the world. Throwing a bone to struggling airlines, EU leaders late last year shelved a planned import duty on jet fuel less than a month before it was to go into effect.
The Council said allowing the 4.7% tariff to take effect under a new duty scheme “would likely cause an increase in the price of jet fuel in the EU” at a time when European leaders were focused on economic growth and many European carriers were struggling to break even.
European carriers suffered the sharpest operating losses in the first quarter of 2014, losing $1.91 billion compared to an industry profit of $1.9 billion in North America, International Air Transportation Association figures show.
“Fuel efficiency is the Number One challenge,” Randy J. Tinseth, marketing vice president for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told EurActiv in an interview at Farnborough. “We need to do better at what we do by working on sustainable fuels and improving fuel economy.”
The aviation industry has used this week’s trade show in Farnborough to strut out new or revamped models of aircraft they claim are “greenest” ever.
“This is one of the very rare win-win situations,” Kevin Morris, aviation and environment manager at ADS, a trade group representing Britain’s aerospace industry, told EurActiv ahead of the Farnborough airshow. “It doesn’t matter for what reason you are reducing the fuel use by the aircraft or by any other mode of transport. At the end of the day that reduces the amount of carbon monoxide and other emissions into the atmosphere, so it has an environmental benefit as well.
“Just doing it for environmental reasons alone is the wrong way of looking at it. It helps with the bottom line itself,” said Morris, who is also on the board of the Sustainable Aviation Council in Britain that published the "Fuelling the Future” paper.
Alternatives: A drop in the tank
But sustainable fuels are a long way from addressing either environmental or economic concerns. Biofuels remain largely experimental in aviation, despite their growing use as additives in automotive fuels.
E4Tech, a Swiss energy consulting group, estimates that non-petroleum jet fuel will account for less than 1% of jet fuel by 2020 – the year the global aviation industry has committed to achieve carbon-neutral growth – and 3.1% under the most optimistic projections by 2030. Still, the group estimates that alternative fuels could reduce aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 24% by 2050. The industry wants to cut its emissions to half the 2005 levels by mid-century.
Jonathon Counsell, chair of Sustainable Aviation, a British industry group, said in a statement announcing the publication of its “Fuelling the future” report: “The UK aviation sector is unique in its commitment to working together to develop sustainable, low carbon, fuels that will deliver on its climate change commitments. From recycling waste materials and gases into jet fuel, to the early stage development of algal oils for transportation fuels, the potential for the UK to become a centre of excellence for sustainable fuels is considerable. We look forward to collaborating with Government to ensure policies are consistent across transport modes and drive the necessary investment.”
The council’s “Fuelling the future” paper says the aviation industry and government leaders must “act now to support a new generation of advanced fuel technologies that will create jobs, increase fuel security and establish the UK as a centre for sustainable aviation fuels.”
Asked by EurActiv how to reduce aicraft emissions that could grow despite improvements in aircraft efficiency, Alan H. Epstein, vice president for technology and environment for Pratt & Whitney, the Connecticut-based aircraft engine manufacturing division of United Technologies Corp., said:
“There’s only two ways of making up the gap, assuming that aviation continues to grow. There’s a technical solution and there’s a political solution and it’s not an either-or. The technical solution is to use low-carbon fuel. We’ve demonstrated, as an industry, that you can make a manmade low-carbon fuel and put in existing airplanes …
“A simple solution - simple in words and not that easy to do - is biofuels. But they have to be sustainable biofuels and sustainable means they don’t interfere with food supply and water and things like that. We know that’s technically feasible because Pratt & Whitney has approved several biofuels for use in its engines and there will probably another five more in the next two years. …”
Engine technology, lighter and more durable composites and aerodynomics have dramatically reduced fuel consumpt and the overall environmental footprint of passenger planes since the dawn of the jet age half a century ago. But researchers say it will take another generational change to squeeze out more fuel savings and make airplanes greener. “Conventional [fuel] savings have been refined and refined to the point you can’t squeeze any more out of it,” Chris Atkin, a professor of aeronautical engineering at City University London, told EurActiv in Farnborough. Atkin and other researchers are looking at next-step technologies, including the AfloNext project, partly financed by the EU, that aims to produce skin for wings and tail fins that improve airflow and thus reduce fuel use.
Still other projects backed by the industry and EU funding involve replacing mechanical and hydraulic aircraft systems with electronics to reduce weight and fuel consumption. One British researcher, for instance, says airlines could reduce fuel consumption on the ground by using electronic motors charges during flight for taxiing rather than burning fossil fuels to drive aircraft around the airport tarmac.
Chris Gerada of the engineering department at the University of Nottingham, said the EU-funded research into increased use of electronics is not without problems and that bold steps in technology come with risks. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, for instance, introduced more electronics to improve operational efficiency. Yet fires first blamed on the plane’s advanced lithium-ion batteries caused the temporary grounding in early 2013. Following months of investigation, safety officials in the United States and Europe declared the plan safe to fly.
“Electronics technology is young so there is [room] for maturity,” Gerada said at the Farnborough International Airshow. “There are always risks with any new technology but they are manageable.”
- June 14-20: Farnborough International Airshow
- Oct. 17, 2014: Deadline for comments on the UK Sustainable Aviation Council’s “Fuelling the future” paper.
- 2020: Clean Sky 2 research programme to expire
- 2020: Aviation industry’s target date for achieving carbon-neutral growth
- 2050: Aviation industry’s target date for achieving a 50% reduction in carbon emissions (from 2005 levels)