Greenair Online reports (under the headline “Progress on alternative jet fuels “stunning”, says aviation industry, but commercialization is now the major challenge”) that aviation industry chiefs are generally bullish about biofuels replacing kerosene. It is accepted that biofuels are the only route to reduce aviation carbon emissions. IATA’s Director of Aviation Environment says:
“Other forms of transport have options for alternative sources of energy but aviation right now really only has biofuels that it can benefit from and we need full support to move forward on this.”
This is because, as one report puts it:
“There are several constraints that limit the alternative fuel choices that the industry is considering: the very large investment in the existing fleet and jet fuel distribution system, and the typical lifetime of aircraft. These factors, coupled with stringent certification requirements for fuels, mean that airlines are not considering any fuel that is not a ‘drop-in’ replacement for petroleum-derived jet fuel.”
It seems the significant progress is being made in developing biofuels for airlines. This is not surprising. Aerospace engineering is at the cutting edge of development of technology generally, and has an acute emissions problem:
“Current global jet fuel demand is around 5 million barrels per day, or 5.8% of total global oil consumption. A paper published in April by Mohammad Mazraati of OPEC forecasted that even with current trends of fuel intensity improvements by the aviation industry, jet fuel demand could increase by a further 2.7 million barrels per day by 2030.”
Those 2 factors combined make it an important sector to watch for speed of application of new technology reducing emissions.
The Greenair item notes bullish prospects for biofuels. For example:
“Solazyme’s technology, which uses algae to convert biomass to oil using indirect photosynthesis, once scaled up to full commercial scale production, could supply around 50 to 100 million gallons per year of cost-competitive jet biofuel at the $60-80 a barrel range, according to Isaacs. Solazyme already has in place contracts with the US navy and air force to supply its jet biofuel product.”
But using the Greenair figures, the industry would require at least 2810 million barrels per annum for aviation by 2030. At 42 gallons per barrel that is roughly 118,000 million gallons. So Solazyme could provide 0.08% of the annual requirement. It will have to get cracking, since Solazyme currently produces no commercial biofuel at all.
IATA is quoted referring to a report by a UK consultancy:
“IATA’s Steele pointed to the recent study carried by consultants E4tech on behalf of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change that showed a best case scenario for a full replacement of jet kerosene by biofuels by 2035 and a worse case of 40% replacement by 2050. “In reality, I think it will be somewhere between the two, and we in the industry will be trying to move things forward as quickly as we can.”
That report can be found here.
Some of the claims of the energy companies which are noted in that report are spectacular, for example:
“The US algae company Sapphire Energy, has said that it will reach the commercial scale by 2011 producing 1m gallons/yr, 100m gallons/yr by 2018 and 1bn gallons/yr by 2025.”
“It is impossible to know at this stage whether this kind of ramp up is actually feasible, without detailed knowledge of the technical progress they have made to date. However, the reality is likely to be that algae biofuels are a mid-term technology option, e.g. 2020 onwards, and unlikely to be produced in significant volumes in the near term.”
And the report makes this comment on the carbon cost of producing biofuels on land:
“The aviation sector is highly aware of the potential sustainability impacts of biofuels production, including the GHG and other impacts of direct land use change. For example, members of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users group (SAFUG) have signed up to a sustainability pledge which involves avoiding biofuels produced from feedstocks with high biodiversity impacts, low GHG savings, or where high conservation value or native eco-system lands are converted. As a result, we have assumed that it is unlikely that biofuels for aviation will be produced on land directly converted from high carbon stock or high biodiversity land, and no impact of direct land use change has been included in our GHG figures.”
In other words, potential GHG leakage from land use changes to produce over 100,000 million gallons of aviation biofuel per annum have not been assessed.
Nor can leakage from indirect land use change brought about by using land for biofuels be easily assessed:
“Indirect land use change is less clear; establishing the causes of land use change, and the magnitude of the impact that can be indirectly attributed to production of bioenergy feedstocks, is the subject of considerable current global research. Although some approaches have been developed, there is as yet no agreement on the results, or on the means of incorporating this into biofuels policy. In particular, there is no agreement on a quantitative factor that can be included in GHG calculations for individual biofuels. As a result, we do not include an indirect land use change factor in the GHG data given here.”
The report considers how much planted land might be required for biofuels. It begins on a cautious but overall sanguine note:
“… in the long term, there is a large energy crop potential, without competition with land for food, and without deforestation or loss of protected areas. However, this does not mean that agricultural expansion will happen on the available areas identified, as a result of a large number of factors including the agricultural markets and policies of all countries worldwide. It will be important to ensure that this expansion does happen on the areas where impacts are low (abandoned agricultural land, low carbon stock pasture) rather than on arable land, or on high carbon stock lands.”
The report goes on to gives rough estimates for the areas of land required to provide all of aviation’s estimated fuel demand by 2050:
- On a biomass-to-liquid fuel basis, this would require 254 million hectares of woody energy crops.
- Providing it all by jatropha growing would require 477 million hectares or 34% of the world’s total current current arable area.
- By algae production it would require around 31,000 algae plants of 1000 ha each, taking up 31 million hectares or 2% of the world’s total current arable area.
- Ethanol production using Brazilian sugar cane would require 185 million hectares of land, equivalent to 13% of current global arable land.
The report concludes that it is “very unlikely” that conventional crops and a biomass-to-liquid approach (eg palm oil) would provide aviation biofuels on these kinds of scales. Unconventional crops or feedstocks have better prospects:
“Scenarios where conventional crops are not used require a relatively small proportion of the identified resource for lignocellulosic materials, relatively small areas for algae, and reasonable areas for jatropha and camelina. It is important to remember that the type of land used for these crops could be lower quality land, in the case of energy crops, jatropha and camelina, and any land type in the case of algae.
*The highest use of lignocellulosic materials is in the High scenario, where supplying 100% of the 2050 jet demand would require 200Mha of land for energy crops (equivalent to 12% of the projected energy crop resource) or 8% of the total projected lignocellulosic material resource, for BTL and SH together.
*The highest use of new oil crops is in the Central (High) scenario, where 19Mha jatropha, 20Mha camelina and 7Mha algae plants would be required. The total can be compared with the current figures of 14Mha for palm, 30Mha for rapeseed, and 90Mha for soybeans.”
All of this effort, assuming it could be done sustainably and with no or limited carbon leakage, and in the midst of heatwaves, wildfires, food shortages etc, and efforts to reduce all other emissions to zero, would presumably be made to enable people to continue to take their holidays abroad, make shopping trips to exotic places, business trips that could easily be replaced by video conferencing and perhaps trips just to top up frequent flyer miles.
I think senior airline officials are involved in magical thinking, don’t you? Its time to limit flying.