In the words of British Airways' head of environment Jonathon Counsell: "Until the industry can reduce [its] carbon dioxide [emissions], it can't grow. This is about the aviation industry earning its licence to grow."
To prove this point, BA has joined forces with Washington DC-based sustainable energy company Solena Fuels to build a commercial-scale plant in East London which will convert household waste into 50,000t of jet fuel a year. BA has pledged to buy all of the fuel, representing a $500 million investment over 10 years, to power its London City flights and has taken an undisclosed equity stake in the venture. The fuel will be blended with kerosene up to the 50% limit permitted by certifying body ASTM International.
The project, called GreenSky London, "will provide 2% of BA's total annual fuel requirement" and will "fulfil all of our fuel requirements at London City Airport", says Counsell. The plant - which will also produce 50,000t of biodiesel, some of which will be used to power BA's ground operations - is scheduled to open in mid-2015.
While the fuel produced is primarily destined for BA's London City operations, Counsell says the airline is "keeping flexible" on whether to use some of it for its London Heathrow and Gatwick operations. "There's an opportunity to bring fuel to Heathrow and Gatwick by truck," he says, adding that it will be possible in future to use a pipeline from a refinery close to the plant to transport the fuel straight to Heathrow.
The aim of GreenSky London, says Counsell, is "to demonstrate that we can produce commercial volumes of alternative fuel economically". But BA does not plan to stop there: "It is our full intention to replicate this and build further plants in the UK." Counsell is encouraging other airlines to follow suit, pointing out that while signing uptake agreements for alternative fuels is important, "to get investor confidence, we need to take an equity stake. We believed this was a good enough proposal to take a risk".
Air France has taken a similar approach in its partnership with the French government-funded research organisation CEA, which aims to convert forestry waste into 15,000t of jet fuel a year by 2018. Under the project, dubbed Syndièse, Air France has agreed to take around 3,000t of fuel annually, but its investment goes further than this.
"We're investing more than only a purchase agreement - we also have shares in this company," says Air France environmental affairs manager Sabrina Bringtown. While 3,000t represents a mere fraction of Air France-KLM's total annual fuel consumption of 9 million tonnes, Bringtown points out that "we're at the beginning of this story" and "we must start somewhere".
Bringtown believes that airlines need to work together to accelerate the growth of the fledgling aviation biofuels market through such groups as Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), of which Air France is a member alongside 22 other airlines.
"There were eight airline members [in SAFUG] in 2008. Today, there are 23 airlines representing 32% of world aviation fuel demand, so we hope we can have a certain influence," says Bringtown. "In the effort to fight climate change, the whole industry must be mobilised. Doing an airline-by-airline effort would not be sufficient."
Across the Atlantic, United Airlines has also been throwing its weight behind various biofuel projects. The carrier has signed letters of intent with a number of alternative fuel producers to negotiate the purchase of up to 50 million gallons of aviation biofuel.
"As we've signed letters of intent, we have progressed our relationships with some of those companies even further," says United Airlines' managing director global environmental affairs and sustainability Jimmy Samartzis. He added that the carrier is "very involved with several of our partners" in building commercially-viable biofuel plants. "You'll start seeing commercial-scale plants in 2014 in the US," says Samartzis.
Each of these plants will likely produce "10, 15 or 20 million gallons of jet fuel a year, so you'd need quite a few of them", but the more plants that come online, the cheaper the fuel will become. "As you see plants coming to fruition in 2014 and 2015 the expectation is that as a consumer we'll be buying fuel at cost-competitive pricing with kerosene," says Samartzis.
The majority of United's discussions have been with California-based Solazyme, which produces jet fuel derived from algae, but it also has agreements with Solena, Gevo and AltAir Fuels, among others.
Airlines need to be willing to take a risk and not look for immediate benefits when it comes to aiding the progress of aviation biofuels, according to Samartzis. "Airlines need to be aware of the risk-reward model and show willingness to be flexible," he says. "Everyone has to give a bit more, take more risk and accept less reward initially."
Lufthansa, which in 2011 became the first airline to operate regular scheduled biofuel flights through its six-month 'burnFAIR' trial, has also put its money where its mouth is. Last year, the German carrier signed a collaborative agreement with Australia's AlgaeTec to build a large-scale algae-derived jet fuel facility in Europe. Lufthansa agreed to arrange 100% of the funding for the project and take at least half of the fuel produced.
Virgin Atlantic is another airline which has committed to buying an undisclosed amount of alternative jet fuel through its agreement with LanzaTech, although the UK carrier has not gone as far as making a financial investment in the company. Virgin made the headlines in 2011 when it partnered the New Zealand-based company, which captures vented gases from heavy industrial plants such as steel mills to generate fuel-grade ethanol through a gas-to-liquid process. The ethanol is converted into synthetic jet fuel by Swedish BioFuels.
When the venture was announced, Virgin said it hoped to start using fuel produced by LanzaTech to support demonstration flights out of China by the first quarter of 2013. However, as alcohol-to-jet fuels have yet to be certificated by ASTM International, this is "taking longer than anticipated", says the airline's head of sustainability Emma Harvey.
Nevertheless, it is confident the fuels will be certificated "over the next year" and LanzaTech's Shanghai plant will be capable of producing "enough fuel for all our flights out of China at a 50:50 blend with kerosene, with some left over", says Harvey. "We're talking about significant commercial volumes."
Once the Shanghai plant gets off the ground, Virgin is "keen to progress to the UK with LanzaTech" and build a similar facility to support its London Heathrow operations. Harvey says the carrier would like this to happen "as soon as possible". She points out that as "the buying half of the equation", airlines need to make clear that "if [biofuel] is available we'll buy it".
The aviation industry set out its environmental targets a few years ago, which included achieving carbon neutral growth from 2020, reducing emissions by 1.5% annually in the run-up to 2020, and halving emissions by 2050 compared with 2005 levels. Air France's Bringtown says "it is evident we won't be able to achieve this without biofuels". This view is supported by BA's Counsell.
According to Counsell, the use of biofuels in aviation "will be a fairly shallow adoption curve to begin with". As Samartzis points out: "United alone consumes 4 billion gallons of jet fuel a year so it's hard to say we'll transition a significant portion of that to alternative fuels in five or even 10 years."
Flightpath 2020, a joint venture between the European Commission, European airlines and biofuel producers, aims to produce 2 million tonnes of alternative aviation fuel in Europe by 2020. "This represents 2-4% of total European jet fuel so it's a gentle ramp-up," says Counsell.
Projecting out to 2050, there are varying opinions on the role biofuels will play. UK-based Sustainable Aviation believes that biofuels will account for 18% of the UK's jet fuel consumption. The EU has a more ambitious target of 40% of total European jet fuel consumption.
"There will be a slow ramp-up but once it gains momentum it will climb to 20-40% and play a significant role," says Counsell. What is clear is that airlines will need to play a key part to advance the cause of biofuels. As United's Samartzis puts it: "If we don't act today, we won't see results a decade from now."