More Airlines Takeoff with Biofuel-powered Flights

By Tina Caparella

Three more airlines have stepped into aviation’s next era by using sustainable biofuels to power commercial flights.

Alaska Airlines just tested 75 commercial passenger flights in the United States on biofuel. Two maiden flights left Seattle, WA, in early November bound for Washington, DC, and Portland, OR. Alaska Airlines and its sister carrier, Horizon Air, continued operating select flights between Seattle and the two cities throughout the month using a 20 percent blend of sustainable biofuel made from used cooking oil that meets rigorous international safety and sustainability standards.

Alaska Air Group’s fleet of Boeing 737s and Bombardier Q400s are one of the youngest and most fuel-efficient among U.S. airlines. But industry leaders agree that biofuels represent a critical element in cutting aviation’s carbon footprint.

“Aviation clearly needs a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels,” said Boeing Commercial Airplanes Vice President of Environment and Aviation Policy Billy Glover. “In the U.S. and around the world, the industry is doing all it can to support sustainable biofuel development and maintain aviation’s role in global economic growth. To make that happen we must develop regional supply chains, and that takes supportive government policies that encourage investment in the early stages of this emerging sector.”

The fuel was supplied by SkyNRG, an aviation biofuels broker, and produced by Dynamic Fuels from used cooking oil. The synthetic high-performance airliner fuel made by Dynamic Fuels – a $170 million joint-venture between Tyson Foods, Inc., and Syntroleum Corp. – meets aviation and military safety, sustainability, and performance standards.

“Advanced biofuels can be an economic driver in creating good jobs and a vital part of America’s long-term energy security,” said Bob Ames, Tyson Foods’ vice president of renewable energy and member of the Dynamic Fuels management committee. “However, government policies supporting development are essential to ensure that the aviation biofuels industry reaches its full potential and is able to compete against foreign petroleum.”

Alaska Air Group estimates the 20 percent biofuel blend it used for the 75 flights reduced greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 10 percent, or 134 metric tons, the equivalent of taking 26 cars off the road for a year. If the company powered all of its flights with a 20 percent biofuel blend for one year, the annual emissions savings would represent the equivalent of taking nearly 64,000 cars off the road or providing electricity to 28,000 homes.

Alaska’s commercial biofuel flights came six months after the company partnered in a strategic initiative called Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest, a 10-month regional stakeholder effort to explore the feasibility, challenges, and opportunities for creating an aviation biofuels industry in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The study determined the region has the diverse stocks for biofuels, delivery infrastructure, and political will needed to create a viable biofuels industry. There currently is no supply of aviation biofuels in the Pacific Northwest.

A second U.S. airline, Continental Airlines, a subsidiary of United Airlines, operated a Boeing 737-800 from Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, TX, to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, IL, in early November using a blend of sustainable, advanced biofuel produced from algae and traditional petroleum-derived jet fuel.

Solazyme, working with Honeywell’s UOP process technology, developed the algae oil that was refined into jet fuel to power the commercial flight. United has signed a letter of intent with Solazyme to negotiate the purchase of 20 million gallons of jet fuel per year derived exclusively from algae oil, about 0.6 percent of the airline’s 2010 fuel consumption, for delivery as early as 2014. Solazyme, headquartered in San Francisco, CA, manufactures the algae oil through its proprietary fermentation process. The end product is then refined outside Houston using renewable jet fuel processing technology from Honeywell’s UOP.

“Roughly four months since the approval of hydroprocessed renewable fuels in commercial aviation, we are excited to see the deployment of these fuels on domestic U.S. flights,” said John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist, Air Transport Association of America.

However, according to a Wall Street Journal article, the new jet fuels are expensive, making it challenging for airlines to continue using the advanced biofuels on a regular basis.

“It’s about six times what we normally pay for fuel,” Bill Ayer, chairman and chief executive officer of Alaska Airlines is quoted in the article. “So the hope is as this industry develops, and it becomes scalable, the price comes down.” The airline currently has no plans of going beyond the pilot project.

“It’s not feasible economically,” Ayer said. “But we sure hope this adds to the enthusiasm in this fledgling industry.”

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Air France and Airbus combined the latest biofuel and air traffic management technologies to cut in half the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted in a flight from Toulouse-Blagnac, France, to Paris, France, on an Airbus A321. The commercial flight combined for the first time the use of biofuels (50 percent in each engine), optimized air traffic management, and efficient continuous descent approach to minimize CO2 emissions. The biofuel used was a mix of conventional kerosene and biokerosene made from hydrogenated used vegetable oils.

Amtrak Successfully Powered by Tallow-based Biodiesel

Amtrak officials have no beef with using tallow-based biodiesel to power its Heartland Flyer train. A year-long trial of using a biodiesel fuel blend to power the daily train that operates between Oklahoma City, OK, and Fort Worth, TX, resulted in no more wear on the locomotive than traditional diesel fuels and no reduction in performance or reliability.

The results, presented in a paper at a railroad environmental conference at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in late October, found the use of a 20 percent biodiesel (B20) blend also operated below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits for this class of locomotive.

The General Electric P32-8 locomotive carried an Amtrak decal indicating the use of B20 fuel and other special markings to make certain only biodiesel fuel was used in the 3,200-horsepower, 12-cylinder engine built in 1991 and compliant with EPA’s “Tier 0” standard.

Amtrak received a $274,000 grant from the Federal Railroad Administration to carry out the research project in partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation on the daily train operated by Amtrak with state support from both Oklahoma and Texas. The biodiesel blend was provided by Direct Fuels of Euless, TX, using beef tallow produced in the state. The trial was launched during Earth Day festivities in Oklahoma City in April 2010.

“Routine use of biodiesel fuel at Amtrak is contingent on many factors, including cost versus traditional ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and availability,” said Roy Deitchman, Amtrak vice president of Environmental, Health, and Safety. “But it is clear no significant engine performance issues were found during the trial and we were able to replace nearly 35,000 gallons of diesel with a renewable fuel that was locally produced.”

European Biodiesel Production Forecasted to Drop

While 2010 biodiesel production in the European Union (EU) registered a 5.5 percent increase compared to the previous year, reaching the level of 9.57 million metric tons, forecasts for 2011 show a production drop compared to the same time last year, according to the European Biodiesel Board (EBB). In addition, the 2010 increase remains low compared to growth rates registered in 2009 (17 percent) and 2008 (35 percent).

Germany and France remain the leading biodiesel producing nations followed by Spain, which confirmed its position of third ahead of Italy due to Italy’s slight decline in production compared to 2010.

As of July 2011, European biodiesel production capacity reached 22 million metric tons. The number of existing biodiesel facilities stood at 254, slightly up from 2009 due to investments in biodiesel production planned before 2007 in reliance of the ambitious objectives for biofuels consumption given by EU authorities.

While EU biodiesel capacity utilization stands at 44 percent, for the first two quarters of 2011 and for the first time in registered history, the entire European production has slightly decreased year-on-year. EBB estimates show the overall production in the EU will decrease in the second quarter 2011. Increased imports from countries such as Argentina and Indonesia, as well as circumvention measures from North America, are mostly likely to have contributed to less European domestic production, according to EBB.

Government Payments Total Millions for Biofuels

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently dished out over $124.6 million in payments to over 160 advanced biofuel producers across the country to support the expansion, production, and availability of advanced biofuels. Authorized under the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels, the funds paid are based on the amount of biofuels a recipient produces from renewable biomass other than corn kernel starch. Eligible examples include biofuels derived from cellulose, crop residue, biogas, vegetable oils, animal fat, and animal, food, and yard waste material.

Pennsylvania producers received the highest total combined payments for biodiesel production at $19.4 million, with Lake Erie Biofuels, LLC, doing business as Hero Bx, receiving $11.8 million for the 45 million gallon per year biodiesel plant that uses a variety of feedstocks, including used cooking oil and animal fats. In the latest two rounds of payments, Smarter Fuel, Inc., was paid $5.2 million, Environmental Energy Recycling Corp., LLC, was awarded $1.7 million, Keystone Biofuels was paid $354,399, and United Oil Company received $192,359.

Iowa biodiesel producers took in a total of $12.6 million, with Renewable Energy Group, Inc., being awarded $9.9 million. Western Iowa Energy received $1.3 million, Western Dubuque Biodiesel, LLC, was granted $944,234, and Iowa Renewable Energy, LLC, was paid $289,362.

In Illinois, Archer Daniels Midland Company received $4.4 million and in Oklahoma, High Plains Bioenergy, LLC, which uses animal fat from Seaboard Foods’ pork processing to produce biodiesel, was given $4.2 million. Oregon’s Sequential-Pacific Biodiesel and neighboring Washington’s Imperium Grays Harbor, LLC, each received $1.8 million.

For producing “biofuel from waste products,” Indiana’s Louis Dreyfus Agricultural and E Biofuels received $5.6 million and $3.1 million, respectfully, Mississippi’s Scott Petroleum Corporation was granted $1 million, and Kentucky’s Griffin Industries, Inc., was paid $184,802. In Minnesota, Cargill, Inc., was awarded $3.2 million for its anaerobic digester/biodiesel production and Minnesota Soybean Processors was paid $3.4 million for biodiesel it produced.

A complete list of payment recipients is available on USDA’s Web site at

Hawaiian Electric Again Chooses REG for Biodiesel Supply

Hawaiian Electric Company has again selected Renewable Energy Group (REG) to supply biodiesel for the electric company’s 110-megawatt combustion turbine generator at Campbell Industrial Park Generating Station on Oahu.

REG, which currently supplies biodiesel to the generating station, will continue to supply three to seven million gallons of biodiesel annually for three more years. Like the current supply contract, the biodiesel will be processed from used cooking oil and animal fats. As with all Hawaiian Electric fuel agreements, the contract must now be submitted to the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission for review, with input from the Hawaii Division of Consumer Advocacy. The present contract runs through July 2012. If approved, the new contract would take effect at that time.

The Campbell Industrial Park Generating Station is the first utility-scale combustion turbine run entirely on biodiesel and is an essential part of the Hawaiian Electric system, supplying needed reserves during peak demand periods and as needed at other times.

Iceland Fuel Company to Use Animal Fat for Biodiesel

According to news reports, fuel company Orkey in Akureyri, North Iceland, has made an agreement with the slaughterhouses in Kópasker and Blönduós to purchase 100 metric tons of animal fat in the current slaughter season to produce biodiesel.

“We already have an agreement with [fuel company] N1 to purchase 300 tons of biodiesel from us per year,” said Kristinn Sigurhardsson, managing director of Orkey. “Such fuel is often used for machines that are involved in tunnel making.” The company has also produced fuel from waste cooking oil, on which one of Akureyri’s buses, among other vehicles, has run.

Mandates Increased in Australia

Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) Government recently approved increasing the state’s ethanol and biodiesel mandates. Biofuels legislation was introduced in October 2007 by the former Labor government and set the minimum ethanol content at two percent in respect to the total volume of petroleum sales in the state at the primary wholesale level. The legislation was amended in October 2009 to increase the ethanol content to four percent and establish a biodiesel mandate of two percent with that amount increasing to five percent on January 1, 2012.

In its recent decision, the NSW Government increased the ethanol content in petroleum to six percent beginning October 1, 2011, and confirmed the biodiesel mandate increase to five percent to take effect January 1, 2012.

“In the last three years, the ethanol mandate has seen an investment of around $200 million [Australian] in regional NSW and a further $150 million is expected to be invested over the next 12 months,” said Minister for Resources and Energy Chris Hartcher. “The commitment to honor the former government’s scheduled increase provides certainty to industry, encouraging increased investment and improved social outcomes.”

Report Doubts U.S. Biofuel Mandates Can be Met by 2022

It is unlikely the United States will meet some specific biofuel mandates under the current renewable fuel standard (RFS) by 2022 unless innovative technologies are developed or policies changed, says a new congressionally requested report from the National Research Council (NRC), which adds that the standard may be an ineffective policy for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Achieving this standard would likely increase federal budget outlays as well as have mixed economic and environmental effects.

In 2005, Congress enacted the RFS as part of the Energy Policy Act and amended it in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. The amended standard mandated that by 2022 the consumption volume of the renewable fuels should consist of:
• 15 billion gallons of conventional biofuels, mainly corn-grain ethanol;
• one billion gallons of biomass-based diesel fuel;
• four billion gallons of advanced renewable biofuels, other than ethanol derived from cornstarch, that achieve a life cycle greenhouse gas threshold of at least 50 percent; and
• 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels produced from wood, grasses, or non-edible plant parts such as from corn stalks and wheat straw.

The NRC committee that wrote the report said that production of adequate volumes of biofuels is expected to meet consumption mandates for conventional biofuels and biomass-based diesel fuel. However, whether and how the mandate for cellulosic biofuels will be met is uncertain. Currently, no commercially viable biorefineries exist for converting cellulosic biomass to fuel. The capacity to meet the renewable fuel mandate for cellulosic biofuels will not be available unless the production process is unexpectedly improved and technologies are scaled up and undergo several commercial-scale demonstrations in the next few years. Additionally, policy uncertainties and high costs of production may deter investors from aggressive deployment, even though the government guarantees a market for cellulosic biofuels up to the level of the consumption mandate, regardless of price.

The committee concluded that only in an economic environment characterized by high oil prices, technological breakthroughs, and a high implicit or actual carbon price would biofuels be cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels. In addition, achieving the renewable fuel standard would increase the federal budget outlays, mostly as a result of increased spending on grants, loans, loan guarantees, and other payments to support the development of cellulosic biofuels and foregone revenue as a result of biofuel tax credits. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Energy, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

December 2011 RENDER | back