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Biofuels Taking Off With United Airlines

RP Siegel | Wednesday June 12th, 2013 | 2 Comments

United planeLast week, United signed an agreement with AltAir Fuels of Seattle to purchase 15 million gallons of biofuel. AltAir has been a participant in the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) initiative since 2010.

SAFN is the nation’s first regional stakeholder effort to explore the opportunities and challenges surrounding the production of sustainable aviation fuels. The group performed a study (video) that showed that the Pacific Northwest has both the feedstocks and the infrastructure to make it well-suited to the production of biofuels, with the potential to create 23,000 jobs. AltAir Fuels uses camelina, a distant relative of canola, as their feedstock to produce biofuel. Camelina is attractive in that it requires minimal water and less fertilizer than many other crops.

The 15 million gallon purchase will take place over a three-year period starting in 2014. The cash infusion will allow AltAir to convert a 30 million gallon annual capacity diesel refinery into an advanced biofuels plant.

According to United, the fuel will be a drop-in replacement for conventional fuel and is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent with no loss in performance and no engine modifications required.

“This agreement, said Jimmy Samartzis, United’s managing director for global environmental affairs and sustainability, “underscores United’s efforts to be a leader in alternative fuels as well as our efforts to lead commercial aviation as an environmentally responsible company.”

The new fuel will be used exclusively on flights taking off from Los Angeles.

The announcement is the latest in a series of recent actions, both on the part of United and the industry on the whole. United made the world’s first commercial biofuel powered flight in November 2011, using Solazyme‘s 40-60 blend of algae-based fuel and conventional jet fuel.

The airline has also recently just pledged to reduce its fuel consumption by 85 million gallons this year, cutting over 800,000 metric tones of CO2 and saving some $275 million in the process. This is largely being accomplished with the use of more efficient aircraft, such as 737-Next Gen with the Scimitar split winglet that helps reduce drag. Other measures include single-engine taxiing, increased use of ground power while at the gate, improved flight planning, and the elimination of excess weight.

Fuel costs are the second largest expense after personnel, ranging anywhere between 15-35 percent of total operating costs, depending on fuel prices. Last year, the industry spent over $200 billion on fuel.

Bottoms-up initiatives on the part of individual airlines to save on these fuel costs is probably the largest driving factor at this point in time. But, industry-wide actions are also in the works. Last week, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) passed a measure asking governments around the world to develop and agree upon a unified measure that can be used to measure and ultimately control greenhouse gas emissions stemming from air travel. The resolution asks for a market-based measure, such as carbon trading, that would not take effect until 2020. This was a positive step, albeit a small one. Some parties, notably the EU, were looking for a global limit on greenhouse gas emissions from air travel. They did not get that. The measure is largely symbolic in that it sends out a strong message, but really just kicks the can down the road when it comes to taking action.

In the meantime, it will fall back to measures taken by individual airlines who are motivated by their desire to cut costs, but may not cut aggressively enough to make a meaningful impact on the level of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere in time to make a difference.

Image credit: PhillipC: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Chris Lyon

    Biofuels are some of the least efficient fuels to make on the planet. They take almost as much fuel to create them as they put out. So they aren’t green, it’s just transplanting the fuel use somewhere else. Natural gas (LNG) would be much more environmentally friendly, oddly enough.

    • RPSiegel

      Chris,

      I’d be interested to see the facts that you are basing these assertions on. We’ve been fairly supportive of biofuels, based on the data, and the potential going forward, particularly cellulosics. There is quite a bit of misinformation on the subject, floating around out there. You might want to check out the series we ran on the subject a few months back. http://www.triplepundit.com/topic/biofuel-debate-novozymes/