Aviation and Greenhouse Gas Reductions: A Role for Renewable Jet Fuels

In a July 1 Federal Register notice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) presented plans to control greenhouse gases (GHG) from aircraft. In August, in Washington, D.C., EPA held a hearing on its proposal. About 40 people attended, with 14 providing comments.

Written comments on the proposal are due by Aug. 31.

While EPA estimates that aircraft contribute 11 percent of the GHG emissions within the U.S. transportation sector – 3 percent of total U.S. emissions – significant growth in the sector is expected. By 2035, aircraft emissions likely will increase by almost 50 percent. EPA’s proposal would cover smaller aircraft such as the Cessna Citation CJ2+ up to the largest jet aircraft – the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747. (Military aircraft are excluded.)

Renewable fuels will play an expanding role in GHG reductions. Currently, cost and availability limit widespread use. Performance, however, is well documented, in commercial flights and in the Navy’s Green Fleet program.

Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs for Airlines for America (A4A), a group representing major passenger and cargo airlines, spoke at EPA’s August hearing. U.S. airlines, she said, are part of a global coalition committed to 1.5 percent annual average fuel efficiency improvements through 2020 and carbon neutral growth from 2020.

In an interview, Young said that A4A is “extremely hopeful for the prospect of renewable aviation fuels.”

She said that airlines are “trying to really push the development and deployment of renewable jet fuels because, depending on the particular renewable fuel, you can get a savings anywhere from 30 percent to 80 percent relative to conventional fuel, based on the (greenhouse gas) lifecycle.”

Recall that emissions are expected to increase by almost 50 percent in 20 years. Additional 30 percent and 80 percent reductions are significant.

Young said that renewable fuel likely will first be used as a smaller component within a broader mix of new aircraft and engine technologies, investments that will yield the initial, near-term reductions in fuel consumption. Then, as the renewable fuel industry expands, greater fuel volume and lower prices will allow the bio-based fuel component to increase.

Renewable fuel production is getting a hard push from many federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy and the Federal Aviation Administration, which has a goal that the U.S. aviation sector use 1 billion gallons of renewable jet fuel by 2018.

New taxpayer-supported production facilities are under construction in Oregon and Nevada. The Oregon facility, built by Red Rock Biofuels, will use forest biomass as its feedstock, making up to 12 million gallons of liquid fuels, including jet fuel.

Sierra BioFuels, in Nevada, will use municipal solid waste as a feedstock, making up to 10 million gallons of liquid fuel.

EPA’s proposal is aligned with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations subcommittee. ICAO wants an international carbon reduction standard in early 2016. ICAO, too, has the goal of stabilizing carbon emissions at 2020 levels.

Importantly, ICAO’s analyses show that even after the benefits from technological and operational measures, aviation CO2 emissions still increase with business growth. For this transportation sector, renewable fuels are critical.

Lead image: Thailand Airways Airbus A380 Credit: Shutterstock.

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