Air­line bio­fuel revo­lu­tion pre­pares for take-off

The avi­a­tion in­dus­try hopes that a bil­lion peo­ple will have flown on a bio­fuel-blend flight by 2025,

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - re­ports Jil­lian Am­brose

It is 10 years since a Vir­gin At­lantic Boe­ing 747 flew from Lon­don to Am­s­ter­dam pow­ered by a mix­ture of Brazil­ian babassu nuts and co­conuts. The ar­rival at Schiphol air­port marked the first time that a com­mer­cial aero­plane used bio­fuel for the 80-minute jour­ney, at least for one of the four en­gines.

A decade later, avi­a­tion in­dus­try am­bi­tions for bio­fu­els are loftier. On the tenth an­niver­sary of the flight, Alexan­dre de Ju­niac, the head of the In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion, said the mo­men­tum for sus­tain­able avi­a­tion fu­els (SAFS) was “now un­stop­pable”.

“From one flight in 2008, we passed the thresh­old of 100,000 flights in 2017, and we ex­pect to hit one mil­lion flights dur­ing 2020. But that is still just a drop in the ocean com­pared to what we want to achieve.

“We want one bil­lion pas­sen­gers to have flown on a Saf-blend flight by 2025. That won’t be easy to achieve. We need gov­ern­ments to set a frame­work to in­cen­tivise pro­duc­tion [of sus­tain­able air fu­els] and en­sure it is as at­trac­tive to pro­duce as au­to­mo­tive bio­fu­els,” he said.

The in­dus­try will need all the help it can get to reach its tar­gets. Within only two years the global in­dus­try aims to cap car­bon emis­sions at their cur­rent level, even as the num­ber of flights taken each year con­tin­ues to climb. By 2050 it in­tends to pro­duce half as much car­bon diox­ide as it did in 2005.

The pres­sure is ris­ing. The Govern­ment has avi­a­tion car­bon emis­sions in its sights and at the cen­tre of the forth­com­ing avi­a­tion strat­egy, and with good rea­son.

Of­fi­cial fig­ures show that the in­dus­try con­trib­uted 7pc of the UK’S to­tal green­house gas emis­sions in 2016, an in­crease from 5pc in 2005. By con­trast, avi­a­tion con­trib­utes just 2pc on a global ba­sis.

The energy in­dus­try has made good progress and the electric revo­lu­tion on the roads is tak­ing shape. But in avi­a­tion, at­tempts to cut car­bon emis­sions re­main in a hold­ing pat­tern de­spite the loom­ing le­gal com­mit­ment to cut over­all car­bon emis­sions by 80pc from 1990 lev­els by 2050.

In­creas­ing num­bers of flights mean fun­da­men­tal change is re­quired and hopes are pinned on bio­fu­els. Air­lines

have al­ready bought 1.5bn gal­lons of plant-based fuel in ad­vance and air­ports in the UK, Oslo, Stock­holm, Bris­bane and Los An­ge­les are al­ready mixing bio­fu­els with oil-based supplies.

But the chal­lenge of ris­ing de­mand for air travel can­not be over­es­ti­mated. Last year the avi­a­tion in­dus­try grew by 7pc from 2016 in terms of “rev­enue pas­sen­ger kilo­me­tres”, a key in­dus­try mea­sure.

Jon Platt, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Air BP, says pas­sen­ger growth could dou­ble by 2035, which would drive fuel de­mand up by over a third. It is a dual chal­lenge that the oil major’s avi­a­tion di­vi­sion is po­si­tion­ing it­self to meet.

“Fun­da­men­tally this is a very strong growth in­dus­try that also needs to meet the dual chal­lenge of re­duc­ing emis­sions as well,” he says.

Ear­lier this year, Air BP took a $30m gam­ble on the boom­ing de­mand for bio­fu­els. Through a strate­gic part­ner­ship with BP Ven­tures it se­cured a decade’s worth of fuel from Ful­crum Bioen­ergy, a pi­o­neer in the de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion of low-car­bon jet fuel.

Through this deal alone, Air BP will buy 50m gal­lons of bio­fuel a year from Ful­crum’s US re­finer­ies. Platt says the deal was un­der­pinned by the firm’s deep un­der­stand­ing of the chal­lenges ahead.

“This agree­ment gives Air BP guar­an­teed ac­cess to prod­uct which will help meet these chal­lenges. Se­cur­ing this sup­ply helps se­cure the fu­ture com­pet­i­tive­ness of Air BP, and our place as a leader in the in­dus­try,” he says.

Avi­a­tion bio­fu­els have al­ready faced plenty of tur­bu­lence. Major ven­tures have failed over costs and sur­vivors face a bar­rage of crit­i­cism from those doubt­ing bio­fuel’s “green” cre­den­tials.

In 2016 British Air­ways aban­doned plans for its £340m “Green­sky” project as oil mar­ket prices grazed 12-year lows and its Us-based part­ner Solena filed for bank­ruptcy.

The scheme would have used just over half a mil­lion tons of land­fill waste from Lon­don homes at the Co­ry­ton re­fin­ery in Thur­rock, Es­sex to make enough jet fuel ev­ery year to power all its flights from City air­port twice over.

At the time, British Air­ways said that several fac­tors con­trib­uted to Green­sky’s fail­ure to launch. These in­cluded fall­ing oil prices, lack of pol­icy sup­port for such projects in the UK, and Solena Fu­els’ fi­nan­cial woes.

To­day, oil prices have more than dou­bled and govern­ment spend­ing is creep­ing for­ward.

The Depart­ment for Trans­port said last year that it would in­clude sus­tain­able jet fu­els in its sub­sidy scheme, the Re­new­able Trans­port Fuel Obli­ga­tion.

This alone, ac­cord­ing to BA, could stim­u­late as many as a dozen new ad­vanced bio­fuel plants in the UK by 2030.

The Govern­ment is also dip­ping into its £22m al­ter­na­tive avi­a­tion fu­els fund­ing pot to help sup­port British Air­ways’ re­turn to bio­fu­els.

The £5m project an­nounced this sum­mer, which is backed by in­dus­try as well as pub­lic funds, may be smaller in scope than Green­sky but the air­line be­lieves it shows that govern­ment recog­nises the im­por­tance of al­ter­na­tive fu­els in avi­a­tion.

Un­der the new project, bio­fu­els firm Ve­lo­cys has com­mit­ted £1.5m to the next phase of de­vel­op­ment in a fea­si­bil­ity scheme. The scheme has also se­cured a fur­ther £3m from oil major Shell and British Air­ways.

As more projects emerge to help spur the in­dus­try to­wards its clean goals, com­pa­nies can be sure that scru­tiny of the sus­tain­abil­ity cri­te­ria will be fierce.

Vir­gin’s first foray into bio­fu­els 10 years ago was branded by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists as a “gim­mick” and a “high-al­ti­tude green­wash”.

“The air­line in­dus­try is clear, united and adamant that we will never use a sus­tain­able fuel that up­sets the eco­log­i­cal bal­ance of the planet or de­pletes its nat­u­ral re­sources,” said IATA’S De Ju­niac.

It’s a vow which will need to be proven if the in­dus­try’s green dreams are to be cleared for take-off.

Air­lines re­main un­der pres­sure to cut their car­bon emis­sions, with al­ter­na­tive fu­els a po­ten­tial solution

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