Will Aviation Biofuels Get Off the Ground?

(September 2016 - Volume 7, Issue 9)


Generating Controversy

- by Josh Schlossberg, Earth Island Journal

Kevin Bundy has tramped through his share of forests in California’s Sierra Nevada. Where he sees a diverse ecosystem of ponderosa pine, incense cedar, and white fir, prime wildlife habitats, and one of the world’s best buffers against climate change, many public and private land managers see something different. Of course, they too observe living forests, but they also see tinder for future wildfires, as well as an opportunity to procure home-grown, renewable biomass energy.

A senior attorney with the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity, Bundy works at the national level to ensure strict accounting of carbon emissions from the burning of biomass, and on the local level to limit the type of fuels burned by biomass facilities. He’s convinced that the nation needs to “get away from fossil fuels and shift to 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as possible,” given the threat of climate change. But while he acknowledges biomass might be renewable “in some sense,” he sees it as “something of a false solution to our climate and energy challenges” compared to other renewable sources like solar and wind.

Yet biomass is big business in the United States. In 2014, half of “renewable” energy in the US came from bioenergy – that is, from burning trees, crop residues (most often from corn and soybean harvests), manure, and even trash to produce electricity and heat, or to manufacture liquid transportation fuels like ethanol or biodiesel. Meanwhile, hydropower accounted for 26 percent, wind made up 18 percent, and solar accounted for a mere 4.4 percent. A significant increase in biomass energy production is likely as the US tries to ramp up its renewables output.


Take Off For Aviation Biofuels: Why, How, and Why?

– by Jim Lane, Editor & Publisher, Biofuels Digest

One striking image for all of us in 2016 has been the graceful lines of the Solar Impulse as it shuttled around the globe in a remarkable demonstration of the potential of solar energy for powered flight.

But if we reflect upon the wingspan, the minuscule payload, the multi-month journey, the speed and the discomfort involved, we might sympathize with Boeing executive Julie Felgar when she stated at ABLC this year, “We’re all excited about solar. I’m excited about solar, but as a commercial reality we are decades and decades away.”

By the 22nd century, we’ll have many more technological options for limiting and adapting to climate change, but in there here and now, when it comes to aviation, representing 5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, for now we have two strategies and two alone. Fuel efficiency and renewable fuels.

There are limits on fuel efficiency because of the 30-40 year replacement cycle for jets, and the 10-20 year development cycle. Designs only on a drawing board today will be not deployed until the 2020s or 2030s, and jets we have in service today will be still flying, somewhere, in the 2050s.

So it is not a shock to observers that airlines such as Virgin, United Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific have been investing in renewable fuel companies. 



The High-Flown Fantasy of Aviation Biofuels

– by Almuth Ernsting, Co-Director, Biofuelwatch

In 2008, pictures of Richard Branson tossing a coconut into the air next to an aircraft at Heathrow were broadcast around the world, as he announced the world’s first biofuel flight. Biofuel, he claimed, would “enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future.”

Environmental NGOs denounced his test flight as a publicity stunt, intended to deflect attention from the fact that aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and most carbon intensive form of transport. As far as Branson and his airline Virgin Atlantic were concerned, the flight was indeed no more than a stunt: The “biofuel test flight” burned 95% ordinary kerosene and just 5% biofuels, made from coconut and Brazilian babassu nut oil. Virgin Atlantic has not used any biofuels since that day.

Since then, however, at least 24 other airlines have blended biofuels with kerosene. By September 2015, more than 2,050 such flights had taken off, most by commercial airlines, some by the US and Dutch military and US and Canadian research institutes. This year, KLM has launched a series of 80 passenger flights with biofuel blends, and since March, United Airlines has been using such blends for regular flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco. They aim to expand their use to all their flights out of Los Angeles.


The Biomass Monitor is the nation's leading publication investigating the whole story on bioenergy, biomass, and biofuels.

Daily blog and back issues: 

Photos: MAIN: Jet (; Boeing (, cartoon (George
Danby); SIDEBAR: Mount Evans Wilderness, Colorado (Josh Schlossberg); Honey Lake Biomass Facility, Wendel, California (; Aviation biofuels (

Editor-in-Chief - Josh Schlossberg
Associate Editor - Samantha Chirillo
Editorial Board - Mike Ewall, Roy Keene, Brett Leuenberger, Dr. Brian Moench, Jon Rhodes, George Wuerthner

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Dear Biomass Monitor Subscriber,

In July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated the obvious, that air travel is a major contributor to global climate change. The real question is, what are we going to do about it?

Jim Lane, editor of Biofuels Digest, believes that substituting biofuels for petroleum-based jet fuels is a step in the right direction. On the other side of the aisle, Almuth Ernsting, co-director of Biofuelwatch, thinks that even if we could somehow produce enough biofuels to power world’s jets, the environmental impacts would outstrip the benefits. 

At least for the foreseeable future, jet travel will be largely dependent on the future availability and pricing of fossil fuels. While the transition to aviation biofuels is possible, even proponents admit it’s still up in the air.

Though the question of whether or not to pursue aviation biofuels is an important one, so too is how to encourage alternative modes of transport, such as long distance high-speed rail.

Further, is business air travel as necessary these days with the proliferation of video conferencing? 

And what about replacing carbon-intensive globe-trotting vacations in favor of explorations of our own regions, aka “staycations?”

Finally, can we figure out ways to make our cities more livable—perhaps through more green spaces and better long-term planning—so people don’t always feel the need to escape?

Maybe the next time we're planning a trip, we can ponder some of these questions.

Conference Call

An Overview of Aviation Biofuels 

Join The Biomass Monitor on Thursday, September 15 at 12 pm PT / 1 MT / 2 CT / 3 ET where we speak with Almuth Ernsting, co-director of Biofuelwatch, who discusses the current forms of aviation biofuels and those likely to be used in the future. 

RSVP on Facebook and email for call-in number. 

Stream the audio recording of August's call: "Introduction to Bioenergy," with Ken Starcher, co-author of the book Introduction to Bioenergy.   
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