Boeing: Biofuels 'vital' to airlines' carbon pledge

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For US plane manufacturer Boeing, biofuels will be key to achieving the airline's pledges on carbon-neutral growth. "Without biofuels we cannot get there. It is a vital contribution," said Antonio De Palmas, Boeing's president for EU and NATO relations, in an interview with EurActiv.

Antonio De Palmas is Boeing's president for EU and NATO relations.

He was talking to EurActiv's Frédéric Simon.

What are Boeing's objectives in terms of biofuels use in air transport?

Antonio De Palmas is Boeing's president for EU and NATO relations.

He was talking to EurActiv's Frédéric Simon.

What are Boeing's objectives in terms of biofuels use in air transport?

Basically, the use of sustainable biofuels in aviation is largely related to the airline sector's commitment to achieve carbon neutral growth by 2020. And the other goal – this is more aspirational – which is to reduce carbon emissions from aviation by 50% by 2050 considering a 2005 baseline. We fully support this strategy.

For our part, we don't plan to become a fuel supplier, we are working to accelerate the adoption of sustainable biofuels for aviation, so we are playing a kind of catalyst role, if you like.

What are the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that you expect from the use of biofuels in aviation?

Well, that's a very difficult question, because it really depends on how much fossil fuels can be replaced with sustainable biofuels. And we don't know, because there are many variables in this game that we cannot control for the time being. It is difficult at this moment in time to make any forecast about that.

In 2007, the R&D challenge was a central one. I think we can say now after more than three years that the product is there, the technology is there. Clearly we need more R&D to optimise the product to increase the energy coefficient of these biofuels, but the product is there.

The challenge now is to get enough biomass to refine biofuels for aviation. Biofuels for aviation are available on the market but we have to scale up the model. One of the issues, of course, is that fuels approval is still a work-in-progress, and the expectation is that approval can occur later this year.

So the challenge is more commercial, it is more from a market perspective. And clearly, we don't know how much biomass will be available in – let's say – two years from now. And based on that, airlines can not predict that they can have 'X' amount of biofuels available for their operations in 2013.

But that's the big question mark, that is the big variable that we have now and which is making airlines very nervous because they believe that this is a very key technology for the future, not just for emissions which is a big driver behind this but also because of security of supply. And then down the road, also from an economic point of view, it can be a very interesting solution for airlines.

Boeing carried out some test flights with the airline industry in 2008 and 2009 – with Virgin Atlantic among others. How did these flights go? Have you now identified the right blends that can be used for air travel?

The test flights were successful in demonstrating that this solution is viable. It is a drop-in solution for aviation, meaning that we don't need any change in the aircraft or engine to make them work. Typically, the flights operate with 50% biofuels and 50% fossil fuel. You mentioned Virgin but others were involved – Continental, Air New Zealand and KLM in the Netherlands and I think also Japan Airlines.

We also had military flights in the Netherland and the US, so tests are very complete from our point of view and we don't plan to have further test flights, because we believe that the data we have is very satisfactory.

The issue that you mentioned about temperature is resolved. From a chemical point of view, we use the same molecule as fossil fuels, it is just that from a processing point of view, the raw material is different. But the final product, the final molecule, is exactly the same as fossil jet fuels. Today aviation biofuel must have an energy density equal to or greater than conventional jet fuel, and it must be able to function in the heat of a desert and in the bitter cold at 40,000 feet.

You said the main problem now is to find enough biomass. Can you use several feedstocks, such as waste or algae, for example, or are you restricted to using a limited set of feedstocks as raw material – for example more traditional ones, like wood residues? Can you use all these or are you just stuck with one?

We believe we need a wide portfolio of feedstocks. The test flights I mentioned used biofuels coming from different crops – Jatropha, Camelina, Halophytes – and we need this broad range to make the transition from second-generation biofuels to third-generation biofuels – typically algae. To make this transition, we need to have sufficient feedstock to make sure we have sufficient biomass.

So algae is a very promising technology. Still, some R&D is needed because the process for extracting energy from algae is much more energy intensive and long and dirty, in a way, than the process to extract biomass from other crops. Looking to the future, algae is a great candidate for next-generation alternative biofuels.

Boeing is encouraging refiners to produce a drop-in aviation fuel using processes that minimise environmental impact, support sustainability, are economically viable, and meet local and regional needs.

Do you have the impression that road transport is benefiting from a more favourable regulatory regime than aviation?

Well, we have to consider that aviation is a niche. So compared to road transport fuels, including biofuels, we are really, really small, which means that we have less attention from the big fuel suppliers from a market point of view.

At the same time, aviation is not part of the Renewable Energy Directive, which means that the majority of the incentives at national level in the EU linked to the Renewable Energy Directive are devoted to other sectors – typically to land transport and not aviation.

There are policy issues that we need to solve in the near term to make sure we are not disadvantaged, at least compared to other sectors, when it comes to getting the right amount of biomass to refine biofuels.

Would you be favourable to some EU-wide objective for biofuels use in air transport, for example?

No, no, I think we are not there yet. This is being discussed but we don't have a position of the inclusion of transport biofuels in the Renewable Energy Directive yet. Same things apply for the Fuel Quality Directive. So this is being discussed, but you know this is a relatively new issue for this industry.

The only piece of policy where we have a clear position is the EU-ETS. You know the EU has an ETS directive on aviation which is due to start next year, and this directive provides that the use of biofuels should be zero-rated when it comes to calculating the emissions from an aircraft. In other words, there is a strong incentive to use sustainable biofuels for airlines.

Now, the problem we have with this piece of legislation is that the EU-ETS Directive is now in the process of being implemented but we believe we need a method to calculate the use of biofuels in aircraft that cannot be the method used in the general ETS Directive – or for fixed installations more generally – because it doesn't work for mobile sources of emissions.

In other words, it is impossible for airlines to claim how much biofuels they have been using in a given flight because the airport distribution system doesn't allow the airlines to keep track of the fuel that has been used in a given flight. The fossil fuels and the biofuels get co-mingled in the airport systems so the airlines are not in a position to assess which type of fuel has been loaded on the aircraft for that flight.

So we are proposing a specific methodology for aviation whereby airlines could claim the amount of biofuels that they buy from fuel suppliers and get a credit based on that amount – like a percentage of that amount. We believe only that methodology can work without having to change the airport infrastructure.

Do you think it would it be a good idea to have some sort of obligation on the part of airports to carry a minimum percentage of fuels coming from biofuels in their tanks?

No, we don't believe that is the right solution, because it will create an additional burden on airports without providing a clear incentive for them, so it doesn't seem to me a workable solution. And there is another way to get there – a methodology which can be verified under the ETS Directive – which is to allow airlines to claim a percentage of the biofuels that they bought for their operations to be credited under the EU-ETS.

Airlines are working on that and the European Commission is open to consider a methodology that can work for airlines without any change in the infrastructure, because that cannot be the answer in a logic of reasonable cost/benefit ratio.

In 2007, a Boeing representative told us it would take another ten years for aviation biofuels to become available on a commercial scale. Four years later, how far have you got?

Well, I think in the last two years, we have seen a lot of progress, a lot of interest from the airlines first, and a lot of interest from the policymakers at European and national level on aviation biofuels.

Certainly, we have seen a lot of activity and terrific progress on aviation biofuels in the last two years and, as I said, biofuels for aviation are available on the market. Most importantly, airlines believe this is a viable solution for the future.

But you do expect biofuels to make a substantial contribution to the airline sector's objective for carbon-neutral growth by 2020, right?

We believe it is more than that – without biofuels we cannot get there. It is a vital contribution.

Can you give a proportion? Do you expect for example biofuels to represent, say, half of the contribution to the airline sector's objective for carbon-neutral growth by 2020? Or is the contribution going to be more marginal?

This is difficult to say because things change every day. Our industry goals have been calculated based on what existing and foreseeable technologies and operational improvements can deliver by 2020 – so new aircraft, new engines, air traffic management clearly, SESAR, Next-Gen, the Single European Sky, and all the rest.

But clearly, that is not enough to get to those goals. So there is a gap, there is a delta which needs to be filled by aviation biofuels. And I think we have been quite conservative in assessing their contribution because we don't know how this market will develop in the coming years. But certainly more than a double-digit figure will come from aviation biofuel. Sustainable biofuels will need to play a greater role over time.

At the EU level, the European Commission seems to be very cautious at this stage about the potential of biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in transport, let alone in the airline sector. Is that something that worries you?

Well a couple of weeks ago, the EU expert group on alternative fuels for transport delivered its first report. And it seems this report nicely aligns with our aviation biofuels views on key points. The experts recommend EU actions to stimulate biofuels development for sectors like aviation that rely on high energy density fuels and where biofuels is the only renewable source of energy they can have.

They also mention the need to strengthen the EU ETS to support the introduction of biofuels for aviation. And also I think the report asks the Commission to give priority in terms of biofuels supply and biomass to those sectors more in need of high energy density and aviation is really the typical example there.

So considering this report should really drive the Commission strategy in the area of alternative fuels for transport, I think that this is a very good sign and I think the Commission should clearly take this recommendation very seriously because we believe that is the right way to go. We will clearly continue to make improvements to the way we design our aircraft.

Engine manufacturers can improve their engines and make them more efficient, ATM can be improved but again, without biofuels we will never get there, because biofuels can really give that edge to the industry and to the airline.

So you're right, we didn't see a lot of enthusiasm in the past, but I think in recent times, we've seen a more positive attitude towards aviation biofuels.

So you're happy with the kind of political support the industry has for biofuels in aviation?

No, I think we need more, I think we need some tangible improvement in the EU policymaking in support of biofuels.

First, the EU-ETS has to be implemented in a way that allows airlines to claim credits for the use of biofuels. The way it is currently designed is not right, so we need some specific methodology for aviation and we are coming up with specific suggestions to the Commission.

This is the most important near-term piece of policy that we need to put in place because the ETS is the only incentive scheme that airlines can use to increase biofuels' use. If they cannot claim credits for the use of biofuels, that would be a disincentive and none would benefit, including the environment.

And in the longer term?

In the longer term, we probably need to tackle the Renewable Energy Directive. But certainly as a sector we need to have a discussion on how the Renewable Energy Directive can support the scalability and the development of the aviation biofuels in Europe in a sustainable fashion.

What about the discussion on the sustainability criteria of biofuels, which is still ongoing at EU level. Do you see as something that could hinder the take up of biofuels in the aviation sector?

On the sustainability issue, we have always been very clear. We want stringent and strong sustainability criteria for aviation biofuels, we need to be credible there.

Boeing is involved in a number of joint biofuel and lifecycle assessment research projects worldwide, and – as I said - we encourage refiners to produce a drop-in aviation fuel using processes that minimise environmental impact, support sustainability, are economically viable, and meet local and regional needs.

So you don't feel that these criteria are preventing the development of biofuels in the airline sector?

No, not for aviation actually. We are already looking at second and third-generation biofuels, which by definition are more sustainable.

As an industry by the way, we are working with the round table on sustainable biofuels based in Geneva to have our standard recognised under the EU standard. So we want full integration with EU standards on sustainability, we are not arguing on that.

The problem with second and third-generation of biofuels is scalability. They cannot be produced yet in sufficiently large quantities and this is why research is still ongoing…

I am not sure scalability is only about R&D, it is more about creating an industry for aviation biofuels. So it is more related with market incentives and policies.

Don't get me wrong, R&D continues to be important because we need to find better yields and maximise the energy content of these feedstocks that are used for aviation biofuels and also the way they are refined.

However, the priority now is commercialisation and availability. We need a comprehensive policy approach to aviation biofuels that includes R&D but also tangible measures that recognise the critical role of aviation biofuels to decarbonise our transport and also supports the take-off of this important emerging market for Europe.

The other point I want to make, and this is an important one – aviation is a global business which needs a global approach. And also when it comes to sustainability, we need harmonised standards that can be enforced across the world. With aviation biofuels, the biggest risk is to have a patchwork type of standard that would certainly inhibit the development of an aviation biofuels market in Europe and worldwide.

If an airline has different standards for biofuels in Europe than in Australia or the US, then it cannot work.

I guess the EU wants its own biofuels standards, that's fine, but we need to make sure that for aviation at least, these standards are harmonised with the standards being developed in other parts of the world. 

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