Climate

This Airline Just Invested Millions Into Turning Garbage Into Jet Fuel

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This week, a California-based biofuel company announced a $30 million deal with United Airlines to develop jet fuel using oils derived from animal and vegetable fats — i.e. household trash.

Fulcrum BioEnergy will use the investment to develop up to five projects to produce up to 180 million gallons of this fuel per year, with United signed up to buy at up to 90 million of those gallons each year at competitive rates.

“The Fulcrum announcement is a big deal precisely because of the need for low carbon solutions for aviation,” Jeremy Martin, a senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean vehicles program, told ThinkProgress. “Other companies have made fats and vegetable oils into aviation fuels, but what is important about the Fulcrum technology is the ability to make fuel from wastes like ordinary garbage rather than food resources.”

This is the largest investment by United in alternative jet fuels, but it is not the first.

In 2013, the airline partnered with another California-based biofuel producer, AltAir Fuels, to buy 15 million gallons of agricultural waste-based fuel — which can use things like corn, sugarcane and other sources of biomass — over three years. This summer some of that fuel will start to be used in flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco as part of a fuel mixture that’s 30 percent biofuel and 70 percent traditional fuel. The fuel is a “drop in” substitute for petroleum-based fuels and requires no moderation to the current engines.

The overall quantity United is using represents a minuscule fraction of the 3.9 billion gallons of fuel the airline used last year, let alone the 1.5 billion barrels of jet fuel used by the industry overall. The recent moves rather signify the first stage of transition to a cleaner, greener airline industry — an industry with a rapidly growing emissions profile.

While greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft are currently only responsible for 2 to 3 percent of total domestic emissions, by 2050 the industry could contribute up to 15 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. In 2013, more than three billion people worldwide were airplane passengers. According to the Air Transport Action Group, aviation is responsible for 12 percent of all transportation emissions.

The U.S. is currently the largest contributor to these emissions, but homegrown companies like Fulcrum hope to curtail that trajectory. Fulcrum has already invested $130 million in developing their alternative fuel — one that can cut an airline’s carbon emissions by 80 percent compared with standard jet fuel, according to the company.

Karen Bunton with Fulcrum BioEnergy told ThinkProgress that their process “has been thoroughly vetted by numerous third parties including the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Agriculture” and it meets “all of the aviation industry and military technical requirements and specifications.”

The company is preparing to start constructing the Sierra BioFuels Plant near Reno, Nevada, that will produce 10 million gallons of ethanol annually using household garbage. Bunton said the plant had a modular design that can be “easily replicated and scaled to build larger facilities that will produce between 30 and 60 million gallons of competitively-priced jet fuel or diesel per year.”

She said the company has “large volumes of feedstock” secured from waste service partners, and hopes to accelerate development in order to produce more than 300 million gallons of transportation fuel annually.

Vera Pardee with the Center for Biological Diversity told ThinkProgress that with air travel expected to more than triple by 2030, “alternative fuels are a viable and most likely necessary step in the process of reducing GHG emissions from aircraft.”

Before this can happen though fuels from innovative companies like Fulcrum BioEnergy and AltAir Fuels must show that they are do actually “outperform” current fuels when it comes to a lifecycle analysis including things like land use changes, according to Pardee.

“Of course, alternative fuel industries promote their own products; it is EPA’s burden to determine the parameters of which fuels are acceptable alternatives based on such a rigorous analysis,” she said.

In June, the EPA announced that greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes are a health hazard and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. In developing airplane emissions regulations, the EPA is deferring to international deliberations on the issue by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, which is expected to release an emissions standard early in 2016.

Pardee is not impressed with the standard under consideration, saying it would regulate only completely new aircraft certified after 2023, “which means that by 2030, no more than 5 percent of the global fleet would be under any kind of GHG regulations.”

“Truly, then, ICAO is navigating toward an emissions target nearly indistinguishable from business as usual,” she said.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association of the world’s airlines, has a much more ambitious target of achieving carbon-neutral industry growth after 2020 and a 50 percent reduction in net CO2 emissions by 2050 relative to 2005 levels.

Perry Flint, head of corporate communications for IATA in the Americas, told ThinkProgress that “alternative fuels including biofuels are an important part of the aviation industry’s four pillar strategy to address aviation’s contribution to climate change.”

The four pillars include improving technology (including fuels), increasing efficiency, upgrading infrastructure, and developing a market-based mechanism to fill the remaining emissions gap.

In order for the industry to play its part to the fullest, state and federal policies will be critical in aiding this transition and supporting the broad-based changes that need to take place.

“Stable policy that supports the cleanest, most innovative fuels, especially non food-based fuels is critical,” said Martin. “Both federal and state policies have a role to play, as does private sector investment and government support for research, development and deployment of strategic technologies.”

United is taking advantage of the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) subsidy in pursuing these fuel sources, which are in their early stages of production and face numerous market barriers. However the RFS is not guaranteed in the long term — in fact the Obama administration recently proposed weakening it. While renewable fuels are important to address climate change and increase energy security, they can also require a lot of land and can have negative local impacts.