Oil might be cheap at this moment, and frustrating the push to adopt non fossil carbon releasing alternatives, but Airbus is building the foundations for an inevitable if not urgent transition in coming years.
In a statement Airbus said: Airbus becomes the first aircraft manufacturer to offer its customers the option of delivering new jets using a blend of sustainable jet fuel.
The fifteenth A350-900 for Cathay Pacific departed Toulouse on June first, bound for Hong Kong, with a 10 percent blend of sustainable jet fuel in its tanks. Since the first delivery in May 2016, all of Cathay Pacific’s A350s have been delivered in this configuration.
The biofuel delivery flight concept, originally devised by Cathay Pacific in 2015 is now in full operation and this latest delivery flight confirms that the supply chain set up a year ago by Airbus and Total is functioning correctly.
In term of Australian dollars (at this moment) biofuel drop-in replacements for aviation grade diesel would cost about three times as much per litre as imported fuel refined from crude oil.
During the global financial crisis, and for some time afterwards, the gap between green fuels and the conventional fuels, which added to the fossil carbon release overburden in the seas and skies, was smaller, and this was quite remarkable considering traditional crude based fuels had a massive scale of production advantage compared to experimental small scale bio-fuel blends.
But even ignoring the debate between climate scientists and those indignant as well as ignorant about the threat that green fuels pose to the established hierarchy that is nourished by big oil and coal, that advantage is under future if not immediate threat.
Standard fossil carbon releasing fuel has to be transported from often remote refineries to airports. The multitude of pathways that can result in aviation grade biofuels include on or close to site production from feedstock sources like industrial wastes and agricultural wastes.
This potentially eliminates a large part of the costs built into refined fuel. As the natural successor to biofuels comes along in the form of algal (or designer bug) fuels, the scope for reduced costs including from a huge scale of production advantage can kick in.
If passengers are overwhelmingly driven these days to choose fares based on price, airlines are no doubt more than likely to choose the cheapest source for fuel that has already been proven to burn in jet engines with the same if not slightly more powerful results per unit of volume, without operational or maintenance consequences.
This is what Airbus and Boeing have been saying with vary degrees of political courage for most of this century. The saving grace for fossil carbon releasing jet fuel has been price, availability, and very substantial improvements in the efficiency of new tech jet engines and refinements to airframes, as seen in the runaway success of the A320 NEO and 737 MAX programs.
But the climate crisis will not go away. It is driven overwhelmingly by non-aviation economic activity, but air transport is the easy target for criticism, and comes with the advantage that as it demonstrates the effectiveness of fossil carbon neutral fuel production, some of that technology becomes more widely relevant to other energy consumers.
Despite the objections of grumbling old men with a crumbling grip on power and influence, emissions trading or ‘intensity’ schemes will sooner than later be imposed on societies by their banking and financial power brokers, who are already abandoning the financing of new coal projects as really bad bets, and can see the opportunity for super profits from green fuel tax offsets or trading schemes.
New brains and attitudes are replacing old attitudes.
It’s money, not so much scientific principles, that will kill traditional fossil carbon releasing fuel practices.
This is the context in which Airbus is publicly pursuing new fuel alternatives on a small but increasingly practicable scale. It’s no doubt where Boeing would emphasise its own considerable bio and algal fuel achievements, if it didn’t operate in such a hostile and ignorant anti-scientific political environment in America.