Sometime this summer, a United Airlines flight will take off from Los Angeles International Airport bound for San Francisco using fuel generated from farm waste and oils derived from animal fats.
For passengers, little will be different — the engines will still roar, the seats in economy will still be cramped — but for the airlines and the biofuels industry, the flight will represent a long-awaited milestone: the first time a domestic airline operates regular passenger flights using an alternative jet fuel.
For the airlines and the biofuels industry, the flight will represent a long-awaited milestone.
For years, biofuels have been seen as an important part of the solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And airlines, with their concentration around airports and use of the same kind of fuel, have been seen as a promising customer in a biofuels industry that has struggled to gain traction.
Now that relationship is showing signs of taking off.
On Tuesday, United plans to announce a $30 million investment in one of the largest producers of aviation biofuels, Fulcrum BioEnergy, the biggest investment so far by a domestic airline in the small but growing field of alternative fuels. (Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong, last year announced a smaller investment in Fulcrum.)
The quantities that United is planning to buy from Fulcrum constitute a small drop in its voluminous fuel consumption. Last year, United’s fleet consumed 3.9 billion gallons of fuel, at a cost of $11.6 billion.
But airlines are increasingly under pressure to reduce carbon emissions. The Obama administration proposed this month that new limits on aviation emissions be developed, and the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, is expected to complete its own negotiations on limiting carbon pollution by February 2016.
“There is a significant role for biofuels within the aviation sector, specifically for reducing carbon emissions,” said Debbie Hammel, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who focuses on biofuel.
Airlines […] say they have every reason to adapt, not only to reduce pollution but also to lower what is usually their biggest cost.
Airlines, in turn, say they have every reason to adapt, not only to reduce pollution but also to lower what is usually their biggest cost: jet fuel.
Fulcrum, a California-based company, has developed and certified a technology that turns municipal waste — household trash — into sustainable aviation fuel, a kind that can be blended directly with traditional jet fuels. It is currently building a biofuel refinery in Nevada to open in 2017, and has plans for five more plants around the country.
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