With all the excitement over electric cars, it can be easy to forget that sustainable biofuel was once supposed to be the transportation fuel of the future. However, it is way too soon to write biofuel out of the decarbonization picture. The global economy will need liquid fuel for many years to come. That is especially true of the airline industry, which continues to face significant challenges along the road to electrification.
Electric mobility has made remarkable progress over the past 10 years. In addition to improved range for electric cars, batteries are showing up in all sorts of uses, from fire trucks and garbage trucks to locomotives, ships, and yes, even aircraft.
The growing use of fuel cells is also helping to accelerate the electrification trend in aircraft as well as ground vehicles and watercraft. Despite all the activity, though, scaling up either batteries or fuel cells to meet the demands of long-distance air travel is still far off in the future.
For now, the state of affairs is limited to relatively small aircraft and relatively short trips.
One interesting contribution to the field is the Airlander by the firm Hybrid Air Vehicles, which deploys a concept comparable to that of an electrified blimp or zeppelin. The company’s goal of ferrying 100 passengers per trip by 2025 is an ambitious step forward for electric flight, but its focus is on regional travel in the range of 230 miles or so.
One key factor holding back a swift transition to electric flight is the need to develop new on-board propulsion systems to replace jet engines. Another factor is the need to invest in new electrical infrastructure to replace pipelines, storage tanks and fueling equipment. It would seem that sources of sustainable biofuel could solve both problems at once. Rather than switching up all those systems and all that infrastructure, biofuel could simply replace its petroleum-based counterpart, gallon for gallon.
That sounds simple enough but formulating and certifying new jet fuels is a long process. Adding to the timeline is the need to prove that the resulting fuel will in fact have a significant impact on emissions. Airline industry regulations allow sustainable aircraft fuel (SAF) of various sorts to be blended with standard jet fuel, but the current maximum limit is still 50 percent.
Further complicating the picture is the need to develop new biofuels that avoid creating new problems. Corn ethanol and other food-based biofuels run into sustainability problems because they rely too heavily on food crops. Second-generation biofuels avoid that problem by relying on non-food crops. However, they can still run into agricultural issues when they take up farmland that could otherwise be used to grow food.
Second-generation biofuels can also run into deforestation and habitat destruction issues, exposing airlines to reputational risks. Human rights abuses also pose risks related to overseas supply chains, from sugar cane operations in Peru to palm oil plantations in Malaysia.
Biofuel stakeholders have been moving in the right direction by introducing - or rather, re-introducing - the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) derived from waste.
The U.S. Department of Energy describes a long list of alternatives to growing land crops for SAF. The list includes algae, waste fats, oils, and greases; agricultural, forestry and wood mill waste; municipal solid waste and wastewater sludge; and even livestock manure.
In addition to their potential environmental benefits, these sourcing streams can also provide corporations with the benefit of a domestic supply chain.
JetBlue took a step in the right direction last month, when it announced that it will double its previous commitment to purchase SAF from the U.S. bioenergy firm SG Preston. The fuel will go to JetBlue’s operations at John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports in New York City, and Newark Liberty International Airport in nearby New Jersey.
SG Preston is an experienced sustainable biofuel producer. In addition to oil seeds and other second-generation sources, it has embraced third-generation sources that avoid running into the kinds of land use issues that bedevil food and energy crops.
JetBlue anticipates that its new fuel purchase will consist of a blend of approximately 33 percent SAF with 66 percent conventional jet fuel. The SAF will be sourced partly from waste fats, oils and greases. The remainder will come from oilseeds.
According to JetBlue, this will be the first large scale purchase of made-in-America SAF delivered to the three airports.
“Targeting a start in 2023 and continuing over a 10-year period, SG Preston will deliver at least 670 million gallons of blended SAF to JetBlue to fuel its flight operations at JFK, LGA and EWR, helping JetBlue avoid approximately 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 emissions,” JetBlue explained, adding that it does not expect the agreement to have a significant impact on its total fuel costs.
JetBlue also anticipates that the purchase will put it ahead of schedule for achieving its previously stated goal of achieving 10 percent SAF by 2030 across its operations.
Though it appears to be a modest goal, that 10 percent figure is probably a realistic one considering the supply bottleneck for third-generation sources. The alternative would be to rely more heavily on first- and second-generation biofuels, which could expose JetBlue to criticism over land use impacts.
JetBlue also appears to have limited its sourcing streams. While not specifically excluding agricultural crops, the company has adopted a more rigorous definition of SAF than the Department of Energy. JetBlue describes SAF as “jet fuel produced from biological resources that can be replenished rapidly and without impacting food supply.”
The emphasis on rapid sourcing suggests that JetBlue favors waste streams over agricultural inputs. Though biofuel crops sound good on paper, the impacts of climate change are beginning to raise questions about the reliability of the domestic supply chain.
JetBlue’s 10 percent goal is also realistic in consideration of the supply competition it faces from other airlines that have voiced support for President Joe Biden’s SAF plan.
Announced last month as part of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” economic recovery agenda, the SAF plan acknowledges that reducing emissions from liquid jet fuel is a short- and medium-term climate solution, with electric flight being the end goal.
“But for today’s long-distance travel, we need bold partnerships to spur the deployment of billions of gallons of sustainable aviation fuels quickly,” President Biden emphasized.
In contrast to JetBlue’s approach, the Biden plan includes a strong emphasis on agricultural sourcing, including a proposed tax credit for energy crop farmers as well as R&D funding and other assistance.
Aside from helping to spur a rapid increase in the domestic supply of SAF, the tax credit is a strategic move that could help encourage the powerful U.S. agriculture industry to lobby in favor of the proposed Build Back Better legislation, which is facing near-universal resistance from Republicans in Congress, as well as from the Business Roundtable and other corporate allies.
The World Economic Forum’s “Clean Skies for Tomorrow” initiative added its weight to the Biden side last month, when it announced a goal of 10 percent SAF by 2030.
Sixty companies in the airline and energy sectors have signed on in support of the initiative, and the lineup suggests that additional non-agricultural pathways for SAF are in store.
The company LanzaTech, for example, has developed a microbe-based system for producing fuels from industrial waste gas.
JetBlue has already said that its new sustainable biofuel purchase puts it ahead of schedule for its 2030 goal. With enough support from the U.S. and other leading governments, it seems that the entire airline industry could far exceed the 10 percent goal by 2030.
Image credit: Nick Morales via Unsplash
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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.