BA to invest in biofuel

16 Feb 2010 by Mark Caswell

British Airways has announced plans to power part of its fleet with biofuel from 2014. The carrier is working in partnership with the Solena Group, “a next-generation, zero-emission, bioenergy company based in Washington DC”, to open a factory in East London that will convert organic waste into biofuel.

If the project goes ahead, BA claims it will be Europe’s first sustainable jet-fuel plant, but according to a report in The Guardian, the biofuel it is planning to produce has not yet been certified for use in the UK. However, the carrier insists that the fuel will be safe to use as US safety authorities approved it last year.

Plans anticipate the manufacture of 16 million gallons of “green” jet fuel a year from 500,000 tonnes of food scraps and other biodegradable waste. The process is said to create up to 95 per cent “life-cycle greenhouse gas savings” (the amount of C02 and other emissions absorbed and released during the lifetime of the fuel source) compared with kerosene derived from fossil fuels.

BA claims that the volume of biofuel it will produce annually would be more that twice the amount required to make all of its flights from London City airport carbon neutral – the equivalent of taking 48,000 cars off the road per year. However, it would only account for about 2 per cent of flights from London Heathrow, and 1 per cent of all its flights to and from the UK. 

BA has signed a letter of intent to purchase all the biofuel output by the plant, which is to be built within four years by the Solena Group. Willie Walsh, British Airways’ chief executive, said:  “This unique partnership with Solena will pave the way for realising our ambitious goal of reducing net carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2050. We believe it will lead to the production of a real sustainable alternative to jet kerosene. We are absolutely determined to reduce our impact on climate change and are proud to lead the way on aviation’s environmental initiatives.”

This statement is an about-turn on Walsh’s stance in early 2008, when he accused Virgin boss Richard Branson’s investment into biofuels as “a PR stunt”. This was also a time when aircraft manufacturer Boeing assured that planes would be operating flights with at least a partial mix of biofuel and kerosene within three years – a claim which has proven to be true.

In October, Qatar Airways claimed to have completed the world’s first commercial passenger flight powered by a fuel made from natural gas known as GTL kerosene – something the state of Qatar is intending to produce commercially from 2012. (Click here for more information.)

Although environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth are wary of biofuels because some are manufactured from crops such as corn, or from trees such as palm – both processes of which have a negative impact on the Earth because they use up resources that could be dedicated to growing food and encourage deforestation, BA assures that its biofuel will be made from waste material that would otherwise be decomposing in landfill sites. What’s more, by reducing the amount of rubbish left to rot means less methane gas, which is said to be more harmful than CO2, will be released into the atmosphere.

Robert Do, chairman and chief executive of the Solena Group, said: “The Solena-British Airways BioJetFuel project will efficiently convert biomass into clean renewable fuels and electricity and is completely carbon neutral. The plant will be a state-of-the-art renewable fuel manufacturing facility, distinct from a standard waste-to-energy incinerator. It will not produce any polluting emissions or undesirable by-products.”

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said: “I welcome this fantastic new ‘carbon lite’ fuel production facility in London. City Hall has been working with British Airways and Solena to drive this project forward to help untap the massive potential to generate cleaner, less polluting energy from waste, otherwise destined for landfill. We are working to bring together more organisations in this way to harvest the capital’s rubbish to fuel homes, businesses and even transport.”

If the project goes ahead, it will no doubt encourage other airlines to follow suit, and will also help IATA (trade body the International Air Transport Association) achieve its ambition that 10 per cent of airline fuel globally will be from renewable sources by 2017.

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Report by Jenny Southan

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