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Delta explores forest residue as jet fuel

Delta Airlines used biofuel from Air BP to power new Airbus A321 for their delivery flights. {Image: Delta]

Forest debris buildup has been blamed for fueling many wildfires in the West. Delta Air Lines [NYSE: DAL] hopes it can soon fuel its jet engines. 

The Atlanta-based carrier said it is investing $2 million to study the feasibility of a facility that can produce aviation biofuel from wood residue – tree trimmings, branches and stumps – created by logging or by wind, snow and other forces. The facility, operated in Washington by a subsidiary of U.S. Advanced Bio-fuels Inc. of Delaware eventually could provide about 10 percent of Delta’s annual jet fuel consumption at its Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles stations.

The study is expected to be completed by mid-2020, at which point Delta said it will evaluate its ongoing participation. Northwest Advanced Bio-fuels LLC plans first delivery of the fuel by the end of 2023.

The aviation industry, which contributes 2% of climate change impact and 12% of total U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gases, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is under pressure from the public and governments to cut CO2 emissions.

“While Delta continues to take actions toward our long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2050, fuel is a key area where we are examining opportunities to create real sustainability differences and drive accountability across the entire business as we lower our environmental impact,” Alison Lathrop, Delta’s managing director — global environment, sustainability and compliance, said in a statement on Sept. 17.

Delta says its reduction in jet fuel consumption since 2005 has resulted in an 11% decrease in carbon emissions. It also purchases carbon offsets to maintain carbon emissions at 2012 levels. 

In July, Delta partnered with Air BP, the aviation fuel arm of oil giant BP, to supply biofuels for the delivery of 20 Airbus A321 jets from the plant in Mobile, Alabama, to a facility in Kansas City for final preparation. Air BP is developing a diversified portfolio of biofuels, including those made from garbage, as highlighted in a recent FreightWaves analysis.

Sustainable aviation biofuel can reduce carbon emissions by 50% to 80%, because the source materials absorb the gas during growth, as well as sulfur, soot and particulate matter.

Aviation biofuels offer airlines the potential to diversify fuel supply from often volatile petroleum-based markets, while meeting demands from shippers and passengers to reduce their carbon footprints.

Commercial airlines have been using biofuels in some passenger flights  for eight years, but sustainable alternative fuels (SAF) have proven difficult to commercialize for aviation so far. 

Relatively little supply has been produced and the fuels tend to be much more expensive than petroleum-based jet fuel because they require more intense processing than renewable diesel and diesel commands higher prices on the spot market, making it more lucrative for producers. Airlines say full-scale adoption requires fuels that are as safe and effective as existing jet fuels, environmentally superior and available in large quantities. 

Many pieces that still need to come together to produce biofuels at scale, including the availability of feedstocks, transportation and processing facilities to convert the energy source into fuel or blend it with petroleum-based fuel, and transportation to the airport. Woody biomass and feedstocks from vegetable oil, fats and solid waste are chemically equivalent to petroleum fuels and can be “dropped” in without engine or infrastructure changes.

Only one U.S. refinery, located in Paramount, California, regularly generates commercial quantities of SAF. Airlines for America, a trade association that represents UPS, FedEx, Atlas Air and six other airlines, says hundreds of millions of dollars in investment are needed for refineries – conversions or construction of new facilities – and logistics to support SAFs. Approval from standards-setting bodies and regulators can also be a lengthy and cumbersome process.

In May, United Airlines renewed its contract with Boston-based World Energy for the purchase of up to 10 million gallons of SAF over the next two years. United has used the fuel since 2016 in all of its flights departing Los Angeles International Airport.

A November 2016 study for the Seattle port authority confirmed the viability of developing a regional commercial-scale biofuel infrastructure for airlines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It evaluated more than 30 sites around Washington that could potentially support the receipt, blending storage and delivery infrastructure required to supply Sea-Tac with up to 50 million gallons per year of aviation biofuel. 

In May, the U.S. Department of Energy began accepting grant applications for bio-energy research and development to include cost-competitive, blendable renewable jet fuel with improved energy density and lower particulate matter emissions.  

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]