Fly the Clean Skies

Qantas Airbus A330

Next week, Qantas Airlines will use cooking oil to power a flight from Sydney to Adelaide, in what will be Australia’s first biofuel-powered commercial flight. On April 13, the Airbus A330 test will consist of a “drop-in” fuel, meaning that the biofuel (cooking oil) will be mixed with conventional jet fuel, and will run in only one engine. The other engine will use standard aviation fuel. Engineers will monitor and compare the two engines during the flight.

Biofuel Bandwagon
Using an alternative fuel to power an aircraft has been done before, in fact, biofuel testing seems to be taking off. SkyNRG, the Dutch company producing the biofuel for the Qantas flight on April 13, has previously powered flights for KLM, LAN Chile and Etihad. In January, German airline Lufthansa completed its 6-month trial using SkyNRG biofuel on a domestic passenger route. The route between Hamburg and Frankfurt tested about 1,200 flights during this period, reducing CO2 emissions by 1,471 tonnes. Perhaps more impressive is the recently completed delivery flight by Etihad Airways – flying a Boeing 777-300ER from Seattle to Abu Dhabi, a 14-hour flight, on a blend of cooking oil and jet fuel. It seems the industry is searching for ways to be sustainable by reducing their carbon footprint, reacting to the rising price of oil, or conforming to government regulations. More than likely, all three motives are driving this change.

Rising oil prices are a bane for the airline industry and further instability in the Middle East could lead to $US150 per barrel oil prices. Many airlines in the US have filed for and/or have emerged from bankruptcy. Any further increases in oil prices could spell global aviation losses.

In Europe, there is a financial motive for airlines to start incorporating biofuels. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme for 2012 has included the airline industry, which means an airline travelling through Europe must pay for their carbon emissions. There is a financial incentive to switch to an alternative fuel. In addition, biofuel has a higher energy density, which allows for the reduction of fuel consumption (although the reduction is just over 1%), the potential for cost savings is there.

The potential for cost savings to the airline passenger, however, is a ways off. Considering biofuels are more expensive than conventional fuels, industry experts think it may be 20 years before the cost of biofuels are half the price of standard aviation fuel, allowing for lower operating costs, and then lower ticket fares. So is it a desire for the airline industry to change or is it green marketing at play here? And is it a green wash?

Environmental Harm?
It’s definitely important for companies to develop a sustainable corporate strategy, one that does the least harm to the environment. So of course there are critics of biofuels, claiming they are not actually green. Some claims have included slashing of the rainforest, causing climate change emissions, and sacrifice of cropland during a time of global food shortages. However, a CSIRO study last year found that a biofuel industry could reduce GHG emissions by 17% over the next two decades. What’s more is that the biofuel blend Qantas will be using on its inaugural flight has a life cycle carbon footprint about 60% smaller than the standard aviation fuel being used right now. And, the World Wild Fund for Nature (the Netherlands) has given its endorsement to this fuel.

It’s just like developing an energy plan for ground transportation – no one strategy is going to solve this global transport/climate change emission problem. We are right to be researching algae, sugar cane, and cooking oil as energy alternatives, because that is just the beginning. Once a climate-friendly option(s) is identified, the challenges are just beginning.

The challenges to producing a sustainable aviation fuel are many: developing a certified biomass regulatory process, optimizing the supply chain and logistic process and adapting airport infrastructure to handle biofuel for starters. For an industry game-changer such as this to make sense from a business perspective, the intersection of profitability and environmentalism must meet. It must be done at a commercial scale and competitive price in order for the airline industry, and its customers, to realize the true benefits. And it will require investment from both the public and private sectors. The upside to this challenge is that it has global potential for job creation. It’s going to take a team effort.

Referring back to the green wash, this is a commendable start for the airlines to begin using biofuels to raise awareness. But it can’t be a one-time deal, as some airlines have indicated since many have no further plans to continue using biofuels. From the number of flights already tested, we know that an alternative fuel can be used safely in commercial aviation. Right now it is not viably feasible given the cost of biofuels. We got that. But the momentum the airlines have shown to bring this awareness and change must continue by their commitment to identifying and incorporating a biofuel strategy into their business plans. Let’s hope they pursue this momentum and tackle this greatest challenge of forming the partnerships with governments and the private sector that are vital to accelerating the availability of sustainable jet fuel sources.