Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

Aerospace Giant Rolls-Royce On the Flightpath to the Net-Zero Economy

Long known for its jet engines, Rolls-Royce Holdings is yet another company to get onboard the global net-zero train with this rollout of investments.
By Tina Casey

In another sign that the great pivot to net-zero emissions is well under way, the legacy aerospace and defense contractor Rolls-Royce Holdings has just announced a raft of new programs aimed at bringing down the carbon footprint of its products. The company’s ramped-up focus on clean technology could also make a significant impact on the global aviation sector as well as other hard-to-decarbonize industries.

A shift toward net-zero

Recently, Roll-Royce announced that it is firming up its decarbonization goals over multiple branches of the company. The latest Rolls-Royce announcement reflects the diversity of its operations, and its potential ability to interconnect with other sectors to accelerate the global net zero movement.

For example, Rolls Royce is currently developing a more efficient, next-generation version of its large-scale Trent XWB aircraft engine, with the expectation that the improvement will help make sustainable aviation fuels more economical, more quickly.

On its power systems business, Rolls Royce has also launched a microgrid system that can apply to industrial processes, and it is part of a small nuclear reactor (SMR) consortium that aims to decarbonize entire cities of up to 1 million people.

Meeting the expectations for next-level sustainability

Improvements in aircraft engines (such as the one pictured above) and nuclear reactors may (or may not) be a necessary part of the global net zero journey, but they also represent modifications of existing technology in which shortcomings have already been exposed.

Bio-based aircraft fuels, for example, raise food supply and land use issues that have become even more fraught as the climate crisis worsens and a global biodiversity implosion looms.

In a similar vein, the emerging cybercrime crisis has highlighted vulnerabilities in the security of nuclear energy, exacerbating public fears about nuclear accidents and firming up local opposition to new nuclear power plants.

Though wind and solar projects may still attract local opposition, and routes for new transmission lines may also be matters of contention, those technologies do not carry the kind of cultural freight that conventional biofuel farming and nuclear energy have accumulated.

Accordingly, Rolls-Royce says it is also focusing on the parts of its business that could take advantage of the falling costs of wind and solar power. Some of its projects have already moved beyond the demonstration phase to enter the commercial market.

“We are investing in battery storage technology, demonstrating fuel cells and building a leading position in all-electric and hybrid-electric flight,” the company explains.

All-electric flight is still in the early stages, but the company has set a goal of more than 100 miles of flight on a single charge.

In addition, Rolls-Royce has built a new zero-emission fuel cell demonstrator project at its Friedrichshafen plant. The new demonstrator is designed to proof stationary power sources that could be used for emergency backup power, or to restart a system that has gone completely offline, in addition to serving as a main power source.

Turning the R&D ocean liner around

Rolls-Royce currently lists 50 percent of its gross R&D spending on “lower and net-zero carbon technologies,” and the new pledge will boost that total upward by 75 percent in less than five years, by 2025.

That will help bring Rolls-Royce’s own operations down to zero-emission status by 2030, according the company.

A far more challenging task is reducing the impact of Rolls Royce products across other segments of its business. That area is more formidable, partly because of the company’s role in the military sector where both performance and logistics are twin priorities that can present hurdles to new technologies. Nevertheless, the company has pledged to make its future combat-grade systems compatible with net-zero goals in only two years.

The maturing of a zero-emission military market could make an enormous difference in the rate of global decarbonization. The U.S. Department of Defense is legendary for its lavish spending on R&D, and in recent years that has included copious spending on new solar cells, energy storage systems, and other aspects of clean technology.

Rolls-Royce’s net-zero plans stand to gain from its military contracts in the U.S. Though domestic firms like GM are better known as suppliers to the U.S. military, Rolls-Royce also plays a key role. As of Fiscal Year 2020, the company ranked 36th in a field of 100 top U.S. Department of Defense's preferred contractors.

With Rolls-Royce firmly planting its feet in decarbonization mode, look for more legacy transportation, power systems and defense firms to dive into the net-zero pool.

Image credit: Rolls-Royce/Twitter

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey