By Carol Pierson Holding
“Airlines won final approval from a U.S.-based technical-standards group to power their planes with a blend made from traditional kerosene and biofuels derived from inedible plants and organic waste.”
I’ve heard a lot about biofuel for aviation tests, but they always sounded suspiciously like airline ‘greenwashing’ PR to me. Richard Branson’s $3 billion bet on an aviation biofuel company went bankrupt. Successful tests turned out to be only fractionally biofuel. Journalists joked about the smell of french fries filling the air. Is biofuel for aviation anything more than good promotion? I posed this question to Steve Verhes, Executive Director of Cascadia Carbon Institute, a Washington state biofuel expert and advocate. Steve’s answer: It’s complicated.
First, there is the food-to-fuel issue – a very real concern, especially with food price increases accelerating this year. But the aviation standards group in charge of the approval took care of that, mandating that aerospace biofuels be derived only from inedible plants.
Then there is the issue of converting even more land to agriculture—another bogey, especially in Steve’s hyper-environmental region, Washington state, where 700,000 acres of timberland were lost between 1978 and 2001.
The answer: Biofuel from inedible canola seed. Not only is canola not a food source, it requires no new land for cultivation in the Northwest. Canola is also an excellent rotation crop, re-invigorating soil that’s been depleted producing wheat or other crops, without requiring new land.
Best of all, canola can grow in areas too dry for most crops. Land that the Department of Agriculture is currently paying farmers not to farm in order to conserve soil. Without careful soil preservation techniques, giant dust storms can easily develop, wreaking havoc on local citizens and blowing away topsoil. Without topsoil, farmland becomes agriculturally unusable. Planting canola would not only hold down valuable topsoil, but it would produce a profit for struggling farmers.
The idea was so enticing that Imperium Renewables built the biggest biofuel processing plant in the world in Gray’s Harbor, Washington. The plant was capable of producing 100 million gallons of biodiesel – enough to power 2% of the state’s needs. There would have been no shortage of demand either, as the plant was located in the heart of the U.S. aviation industry and Boeing, already highly rated for environmental performance, had publicly committed to transitioning to biofuel.
But problems arose. Canola farming just didn’t catch on, so there wasn’t enough canola seed to keep the plant running. Imperium got its initial $214 million from investors before analysts started spotting holes in their projections: Actual production never came close to 100 million gallons due to the canola shortage. An IPO failed in January 2008; the company laid off staff, lost contracts and even shut down after an explosion in 2009; and Washington State has not yet mandated biodiesel production or subsidized its use, so Imperium has to ship its biodiesel to Oregon and British Columbia, which do have mandates.
All of which is depressing, but not devastating. Biofuel demand has picked up. Canola production is up this year and Imperium’s plants are running again. Ethanol could lose its subsidies, making canola more economically attractive.
Best of all is the news at the top: Just last week, the ASTM Emerging Fuels Taskforce, co-led by Boeing, a company with significantly higher environmental ratings than its industry, and the Federal Aviation Administration, approved biofuel for use in commercial jets.
But then my biofuel expert dropped the bombshell: A Boeing 747 uses one gallon per second when it’s cruising. One gallon per second. If Imperium had trouble filling its 100 million gallon plant capacity with canola seed, think of the staggering quantity of feedstock that would be required for aviation.
Oh well. Innovation takes time. The good news is that it looks like the players, from airlines to regulators to the formerly disappointed biofuel procesors - are sticking with biofuels for aviation. In September KLM will launch more than 200 flights operated on biokerosene. Airlines in the Virgin Group are collaborating to see if they could develop biofuels at Los Angeles International airport. And even U.S. airlines are coming to the party: A major group, that includes American and United, is negotiating an agreement to buy biofuel derived from recycled waste for use at San Francisco Bay Area airports. And whether they’re motivated by promotion or profits or mandates and subsidies doesn’t matter, if it gets us to a cleaner future.
Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.
Inset photo courtesy of puddy_uk (CC).