The aviation industry has committed to carbon-neutral growth, and sustainability is fast becoming a buzzword of post-pandemic reset. But how is sustainability really achieved?
The drum of sustainability has sounded unashamedly throughout this edition of EVA, most often carrying the message for sustainable alternative fuel (SAF) and carbon offset. In business and VIP aviation, as in every industry, there is more to sustainability than fuel alone, but the importance of producing fossil fuel alternatives is the single most important factor in the equation.
Fuelling the Future
The aviation industry, including business aviation, has committed to carbon neutral growth from 2020 and halving total carbon emissions by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. Popular media reports might have us believe a new generation of electric airliner is just around the corner, but the reality is that for now, all-electric power is only for lightplanes and even then with the important caveat that the electricity used to charge their batteries ought to be produced by sustainable means.
Realistically, we are decades away from realising an electrically-powered aircraft that might replace a 737 or A320. The same is true of a machine that could equal the performance of a business jet, so the immediate route to sustainable flight, at least from the fuelling perspective, is through SAF and carbon offset. But the process is taking time, despite the best efforts of proactive fuel companies, among them Air bp, which has so far supplied SAF at 16 locations in six countries across three continents.
Tom Parsons, Commercial Development Manager Low Carbon at Air bp, explains: “The higher cost of SAF compared to regular fuel is preventing wider uptake, limiting production. The increased cost is down to a combination of the current availability of sustainable feedstocks and the continuing development of new production technologies. As the technology matures it will become more efficient and so the expectation is that SAF will become less costly for customers. Air bp is working on helping create more demand in the short-term, which will lead to more production and, hopefully, lower costs. We expect significant growth in demand and have recently agreed a deal with SAF producers Neste that will enable us to offer a five-fold increase in volume of SAF to our customers in Europe in 2020 and 2021, compared with 2019.”
Thankfully, Air bp is not alone in the quest for widescale SAF availability. Encouraging news emerged from the US on 12 August, when Phillips 66 announced plans to reconfigure its San Francisco Refinery in Rodeo, California, to produce renewable fuels. Rather than crude oil, the expectation is that the facility will refine used cooking oil, fats, greases and soybean oils. A company spokesperson confirmed that pollutants, including sulphur oxides and other greenhouse gas emissions, will be reduced by more than 50%.
Known as Rodeo Renewed, the project aims to produce 680 million US gallons of renewable diesel and gasoline, and sustainable jet fuel, annually. Combined with the production of renewable fuels from another project in development, the plant would produce more than 800 million US gallons of renewable fuel per year, making it the world’s largest facility of its kind.
Nonetheless, over its lifecycle – including the full process from collection of used feedstock through to combustion on the aircraft – SAF releases up to 80% less carbon than the traditional jet fuel it replaces. Currently, up to 50% SAF is blended into traditional jet fuel to achieve certification, however. Taking these two elements into account, even if an aircraft were using as much SAF as it could on every flight, there would still be residual carbon emissions, a fact recognised by Air bp’s Target Neutral offsetting programme and similar schemes.
The company’s Tom Parsons notes: “Even when the carbon emissions associated with flying are reduced by using SAF and through the benefits of other initiatives, including more efficient aircraft and engine designs, there is still a residual carbon footprint. Voluntary offsetting programmes, like those offered through bp Target Neutral, can offset those emissions.”
It’s also essential to think beyond flying and the emissions associated with the aviation fuel supply chain. Parsons says Air bp understands the role it can play. “In February, Bernard Looney, bp’s new CEO, delivered a landmark speech outlining a new ambition for the whole organisation to become a net zero company by 2050 or sooner, and to help the world get to net zero. In 2016, Air bp became the first aviation fuel provider to become carbon neutral globally, across our 250 operated sites, and achieved independent PAS 2060 certification.
“We created a reduction plan to tackle direct and indirect emissions, which includes introducing fuel efficient and electric vehicles, as well as innovative stop-start technology on aviation fuel hydrant dispensers. Residual carbon emissions are offset through Target Neutral.”
Beyond Electric Dreams
All-electric airliners may still be the stuff of technologist’s dreams, but the clever, careful use of alternatively-generated electricity and solar systems is already reaping benefits at airports. Poland’s S4GA produces a range of innovative solar-powered airfield lighting solutions and while Marketing Manager Olga Ziniuk admits the sun is a little too shy in northern Europe to make solar power a practical year-round solution, she emphasises that S4GA supplies complete airfield lighting solutions for all types and sizes of airport, from small domestic airstrips to international hubs.
The company’s solar units are designed as an alternative to diesel generators for airports where laying electric cables is impossible or undesirable, or where local electricity supplies are unreliable, but have obvious potential for reducing emissions. Ziniuk cites Dhaalu Airport, a regional airfield on Dhaalu Atoll in the Maldives, as a prime user of S4GA solar airfield lighting. “The airport was unable to install conventional wired lighting, leaving them to choose between diesel generators and solar power. They chose our equipment, which requires neither an electrical grid nor back-up power source.”
The company also offers complete, portable sets of lights that may be erected and taken down as required. They open up the possibility of landing at a remote strip by daylight, offloading and setting up a runway lighting system, and leaving it to operate without any noise pollution or emissions. The same principle is applied to helipads and, Ziniuk notes, “We supply temporary helipad lighting kits in transportable cases. They are used by police forces, the military and private operators on several continents. The lights can be installed on yachts too – our helipad lights use batteries that are recharged via chargers, but they may also be equipped with small solar panels, to become fully autonomous solar-powered lights.”
Speaking to EVA on a hot August afternoon in the UK, Miles Thomas, Head of Sustainability and Planning at Farnborough Airport, mentioned the welcome cool of his air conditioned office compared to the uncomfortable temperature out on the ramp. A passing comment, it immediately raised the question of how an airport terminal is air conditioned, the answer to which demonstrates the complexity of true sustainability.
“Farnborough is a carbon neutral airport but it’s fair to say that there are very few businesses that don’t use gas and electricity and we’re no exception. We use gas to heat our buildings, but we do it smartly. And we use electricity. For the past 18 months or so on a REGO [Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin] contract.
“Specifically looking at air conditioning, there are two aspects to consider when it comes to carbon footprint. Obviously, it uses electricity, but we also have to account for any gas leakage that occurs from the system. Our carbon calculating process is extremely varied and accurate and we assign our emissions into three ‘silos’, known as ‘scopes’. Scope 1 relates primarily to the fuel we use on the airport [not fuel used by aircraft] and also includes releases from air conditioning. Scope 2 is carbon we create indirectly – through the electricity we purchase and which powers the air conditioning, for example. Scope 3, including emissions from the cars our staff drive to work, taxis serving the airport and so on, generally isn’t offset against because although we hope to guide and influence it, we can’t actually control it.”
Air conditioning and the detailed reporting and mandatory maintenance schedules needed to record its carbon emissions and offset them accurately, are entirely indicative of the effort required to create, run and maintain a carbon neutral airport. Other examples are vehicle fuels, which are dispensed onsite via metered, traceable pumps, while the airfield is required to demonstrate not only the robustness of its emissions measuring capability, but also its repeatability.
Food for Thought
A truly sustainable industry will only be achieved through changing mindsets, among them our attitudes to food, including waste, packaging and the emissions associated with production and delivery. Carol Swan, Business Development Manager at On Air Dining, reveals the company’s quest for recyclable packaging.
“It has been a major push for us over the past four years. It was very challenging finding recyclable or biodegradable packaging that works in the aircraft environment, but a few great products have become available. That said, we’ve still done our own rigorous food safety, reheating and transportability testing. We needed to ensure the packaging met temperature and hygiene standards, could be used in ovens and microwaves up to 220°, and neither leaked nor deteriorated in our vans or on board the aircraft.
“The large majority of our packaging is now compostable, sustainable or recyclable. We can also provide bamboo cutlery, while many of our small pots and bags look like plastic but are actually compostable sugarcane. We are also in the final stages of testing of a 95% paper/compostable container that is oven/microwave safe and we’ve moved away from polystyrene to a natural, sustainable, food-safe insulate.”
Swan alludes to the vital importance of On Air’s vehicle fleet, an area where a specialist fine caterer also needs to examine the sustainability of something as mundane as its refrigerated vans. “It is difficult to reduce carbon emissions on the delivery side of the business,” she says, “but our goal is to have a green fleet in five years. The refrigeration requirement on our delivery vans poses a big challenge for more eco-friendly vehicles, but we are very hopeful these types of vehicles will join our fleet in the not too distant future.
“In the meantime, we have tracking hardware and software that analyses driver performance to ensure they are driving economically. We constantly review fuel consumption, train our drivers and make every effort to transport multiple orders on one van, as well as creating efficiencies on shopping runs.”
Food waste is another major concern and one the business and VIP aviation industry is guilty of, even if unwittingly. Swan agrees, noting: “It’s concerning to see so much wastage, and terrible that unused/untouched food that has been safely stored must be thrown away due to health safety concerns and regulatory requirements. We do our best to guide crews on portion size and offer a variety of sizes of platter and meals to accommodate any requirement.
“On a very positive note, operators are starting to pay closer attention to this and we’ve found they are very willing to work with us on reducing wastage. There has certainly been a mental shift in environmental impact and a lot of progressive businesses are looking to do their part any way they can; it’s both environmentally and fiscally responsible.”
Meanwhile, Textron Aviation is taking a refreshingly sensible view of electric powerplant technology, a spokesperson telling EVA: “Many advancements have been made, but we believe the technology has a way to go before it’s a viable application that can be widely used in general aviation. The power density of batteries is not quite there yet compared to 100 low lead or Jet-A fuel. From what we’ve seen so far, a hybrid technology option probably has the best chance of getting there soonest and we believe this technology has great potential.”
While Textron Aviation is supporting organisations including the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, National Business Aviation Association and European Business Aviation Association in their work to improve access to and the affordability of SAF, and promote awareness of its benefits among operators, it also acknowledges its environmental responsibilities beyond fuel.
According to the spokesperson, Kansas offers the possibility of ‘abundant, affordable wind energy’, and it is harnessing the state’s winds through a 20-year wind energy agreement with Evergy. Delivering 55 megawatts of energy from a 300MW facility being constructed near Manhattan, Kansas, the Soldier Creek Wind Farm should be online by the end of 2020. It will meet almost all the company’s electricity needs at its Wichita and Independence plants and is also expected to reduce the company’s energy costs by almost 22% – fiscal savings could be in excess of $3 million over each five-year period of the agreement.
Textron Aviation also treats wastewater from its industrial processes, including the manufacture of aircraft parts, aircraft assembly and painting, in its own industrial wastewater treatment plants (IWTP). The chemical processing lines and paint facilities are the major producers of wastewater in need of treatment and all three of Textron Aviation’s major manufacturing facilities in Wichita have IWTPs.
Achieving carbon neutrality across the aviation industry is about more than SAF. A realistic approach to every stage of the process, and a pragmatic appraisal of the technology likely to mature in the next five years, rather than the next five decades, is essential. There is also a change of thinking to embrace.
Miles Thomas, Farnborough Airport’s Head of Sustainability and Planning, says: “Entire businesses need to embrace the sustainable ethos. If you don’t have that, you have just one small department trying to push the agenda. It has to be played out across companies, from the CEO and senior management where the policies are created, to the frontline people out there on the ramp using the equipment. Then you’re in a pretty good place and the new challenge is to keep people motivated and interested in the long term.”