All-Biofuels Flights Possible, but Airlines’ Strategy Is More ‘All of the Above’

Source: By Tom Curry, Roll Call • Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The U.S. airline industry has made a commitment to reduce emissions by moving to using biofuels to supplement and perhaps eventually replace petroleum-based jet fuel.

The industry — which accounts for 2 percent of man-made carbon dioxide emissions in this country — has committed to “carbon neutral growth” from 2020 onward. That means after 2020 finding ways to offset emissions even as the airline industry flies more miles and serves a bigger population.

So will you be flying from Los Angeles to New York on a biofueled flight in the next 20 years?

“Within 20 years? I think that’s possible. Do I think it’s the most likely scenario? No,” said Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs at the airline industry trade association,Airlines for America, Tuesday. She spoke to The Container after her presentation at the Energy Information Administration’s conference.

More likely is that refineries producing biofuels – derived from seed oils, animal fats, municipal solid waste, or other non-petroleum sources – will be supplying major airports located near them. (The general assumption is that the entire cycle of generating and using a biofuel causes fewer emissions than refining and burning a fossil fuel.)

“But it’s going to be mixed with traditional petroleum supply,” Young said. “We don’t really want to segregate the supply and put it in a truck and say ‘it’s just going to go into this flight.’ That’s what’s happening now because were doing demonstration flights with the [biofuel] supply we have. But you want to be able to put it into your infrastructure and mix it with everything else so you’re not paying to store it separately.”

She added, “It’s hard for me to imagine a 100 percent biofuel flight being a routine thing.”

Young told the EIA conference that a big motivation for the industry exploring biofuels is the chance to reduce the price volatility that airlines suffer from petroleum-based jet fuel.

Young told the EIA conference that “The biggest challenge we really see to full-scale deployment… is getting over the rest of the commercial viability hump, that is, continuing to bring down the price. … And really drive the producers to meet the demand” that U.S. airlines have, currently 18 billion gallons of jet fuel a year.

Two factors will limit airlines’ ability to have 100 percent biofueled flights. “One is the sheer volume of supply – we’ve got to get supply. We’re more likely talking about purchasing the alternative fuel, putting it in the common storage system, and it’s just mixed with rest of the fuel.”

The other factor is that plant-based biofuel typically does not have sulfur content, which petroleum naturally does. And sulfur provides lubricity – needed for seals on tanks on airplanes, for example.

But what about a scenario in which petroleum-based jet fuel is so much less expensive than biofuel in 2020 or 2030 that airlines can’t afford to not use old-fashioned jet fuel?

“Looking at jet fuel prices over time, it’s hard to imagine prices for petroleum-based fuel not continuing to go up…. And we’re working very hard to bring the price of renewable fuel down,” Young said.

And she added, “We believe that there are drivers beyond sheer economics here. The economic interests are only in having a competitor to petroleum-based to deal with the price volatility – but we also have a commitment… to achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020….”