What’s driving the development of renewable fuels?

High fuel prices, fuel price volatility and the desire to reduce GHGs from the aviation sector. Some governments are considering and implementing carbon emissions penalties for aviation, and airlines using low-carbon renewable fuels would benefit under these schemes. Finally, there has been a major shift in global refinery output away from jet fuel and toward gasoline and diesel fuels. This, combined with growing commercial and military jet fuel demand, is increasing cost and volatility of the jet fuel fraction relative to other fossil fuel types.

Are renewable fuels a false solution for the aviation industry?

The complexity and diversity of the renewable fuels sector makes it impossible to make a blanket statement about the industry as a whole. Some of these fuels and business models have limited potential to scale up sustainably and cost-effectively, but some do, and have the potential to produce many positive outcomes for the industry and the planet.

Renewable jet fuel may not solve the industry’s problems as a whole any time soon, but for individual airlines, a significant fraction of their fuel demand could be met by a single commercial-scale renewable fuels project.

What are the social implications of the aviation industry moving heavily into renewable fuels?

At the macro/global level, petroleum is found in a relatively small number of countries, while all countries are endowed with renewable resources, so this represents a socioeconomic opportunity in a large number of countries. The jet fuel market is approximately 10% of the total petroleum fuel market, so it is small relative to the gasoline and diesel markets. For technical and market reasons, companies involved in producing renewable jet fuel are generally also involved in making other types of fuel, so shifting over to renewable fuels could have significant social implications – but it all depends on how the industry develops, including ownership structures, employment practices, feedstocks/technologies used etc.

Our increasingly globalized world relies on air travel to connect people, goods and commerce across the planet; aviation provides important social and economic benefits. High and volatile fuel prices, as well as carbon emissions associated with fossil jet fuels, represent fundamental threats to the future of commercial aviation. Renewable jet fuels may not only help the aviation sector survive, but even thrive in the future.

What’s your response to the argument that the biofuels currently out there cause deforestation, food price rises, hunger, poverty and biodiversity loss, and that they often produce more GHG emissions than the fossil fuels they replace?

The impact of biofuels – positive or negative – depends on what materials they are made from, where and how. Some biofuels could have some or maybe even all of those negative impacts, while some will be hugely beneficial. Many of the advanced renewable fuels technologies utilise non-food feedstocks and/or feedstocks that do not compete for agricultural land. It is extremely important that we clearly distinguish between the sustainable biofuel production pathways and the unsustainable pathways, and support those that are sustainable. This is a key part of our mission.

It is worth noting that we use the term 'renewable fuels' to be inclusive of new production pathways that may not use biomass as a major input. For example, there are companies that are converting all kinds of waste into fuel, including steel mill emissions and municipal waste, and some are working on direct conversion of solar energy into liquid fuels – they’ve dubbed them 'solar fuels'.

Who will determine how safe these renewable fuels are?

These fuels go through incredibly rigorous testing. Fuels may only be used in the aviation sector if they’ve been approved by the international standards setting bodies in conjunction with governments. In the US, the ASTM body and FAA have to approve each fuel. The US military has also been very engaged and has conducted extensive testing of these new fuels. Currently, two new categories of renewable jet fuels have been approved for use at a 50/50 blend with conventional jet fuel and there are several other types that are in line to go through the testing and certification process. These fuels will be functionally indistinguishable from current jet fuels, and will be fungible with other jet fuel types throughout the supply chain.

What has this got to do with aviation? Isn’t a ranking of renewable fuels appropriate to other sectors, especially automotive?

Absolutely. Aviation is the sector with the fewest alternatives. On the ground, if we need to reduce our fuel use and subsequent emissions, many people can telecommute, ride a bike to work, use public transportation, live closer to where we work, switch to electric vehicles and so on. The aviation sector is under pressure to reduce its fuel use and emissions, but developing new airplanes and phasing them into fleets, and changing air traffic control technologies and procedures, takes decades. As a result, for the foreseeable future, airplanes will run on a liquid fuel that needs to perform exactly like conventional jet fuel. We intend to start with renewable aviation fuels and expand the database and our analyses to include other renewable fuels that can be used in the automotive sector and elsewhere.

Why is it better for these fuels to be used in aviation rather than in automotive or power generation? Or shipping – another sector the Carbon War Room has focused a lot of attention on?

Aviation and shipping have no current or foreseeable alternatives to a liquid hydrocarbon fuel supply. Trucking is another sector that will see few energy alternatives in the near term. For these sectors, renewable fuels are one of only a few pathways (efficiency improvements being one important element) toward lowering carbon emissions and reducing the economic impacts of increasing oil prices. Renewable fuels are and certainly will be used in the automotive and power generation sectors, but these sectors have other low-carbon alternatives – e.g. batteries, wind, solar, geothermal, etc.

What is the market potential for these renewable fuels?

In both dollar value and volume terms, there is a huge market for renewable jet fuels. Annual jet fuel demand is more than five million barrels per day, making it a multi-billion dollar market. In 2010, airlines alone spent $140 billion on jet fuel, and they expect to spend more than $200 billion in 2012.

Why aren’t these fuels actually being used?

Several thousand flights have been powered by renewable fuel blends in recent years. However, they are not used at large scale across the industry because of limited availability. The first two types of renewable fuels were just recently approved (one in July 2011 and one in 2009), and producers face huge challenges in obtaining financing to scale up their operations.

A 'catch-22' exists whereby finance providers want to fund the commercial deployment of proven, mature advanced renewable fuels technologies but nobody wants to finance the first few advanced renewable fuel production facilities that would allow a given technology to be proven. Helping to bridge this gap by helping to provide market transparency is the key value proposition of Carbon War Room's Renewable Jet Fuels Operation. We hope RenewableJetFuels.org will support and catalyze transactions that launch this industry into widespread commercialization.

How much do the fuels cost?

There is a wide range in costs – and few companies are stating their costs publicly while the industry is still scaling up. We anticipate far more pricing data becoming available as the industry develops.

Who has verified the information in the website?

To the extent possible, the information has been verified by a team of experts in the US and Europe who work full-time on this. Our voluntary advisory board provides additional perspectives and expertise.

Why is this a game-changer? No one uses renewable fuels in aviation.

I’m sure that a reporter for the horse and buggy industry asked Henry Ford a similar question when he had just begun building automobiles. If a renewable fuel can be produced sustainably at the same or lower cost than existing jet fuel, that technology and business model will change the world.

What will change about the way airlines think about renewable fuels?

Right now these fuels are brand new and only produced in very small amounts. They are currently a novelty but eventually will become part of the norm for airline operations.

Why have you included biofuels?

They are a type of renewable fuel that can be produced sustainably. We see models for sustainable biofuels production via photosynthetic algae, agriculture residues and many other biofuel pathways.

Isn’t the best way of reducing emissions in aviation to have less flying? Or lighter aircraft?

Those are great ways to reduce emissions and we encourage greater efficiency and new ways of living and working that reduce pollution; however, studies show that those measures alone will likely not be enough to halt the growth in emissions from the sector.

Won’t placing a price on carbon have a far greater effect on reducing emissions in aviation than any website?

Perhaps, but a global carbon price does not yet exist. In the absence of such a tax, innovation must lead the charge for a sustainable future. Furthermore, these strategies are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary strategies.