Op-ed: How Canada could capitalize on sustainable aviation fuel innovation opportunities

Avatar for Andrew WeaverBy Andrew Weaver | August 24, 2022

Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 45 seconds.

With the summer holiday season coming to an end, and after hearing no end of Covid-related horror stories (delays, cancelled flights, staff shortages, passport issues) from friends and family who decided to travel by air to destinations afar for the first time in several years, I thought I would spend some time exploring climate solutions in the aviation sector.

As I noted in my recent presentation to the BC Aviation Council May Conference 2022, transportation in the aviation sector affects our climate through two main ways. The first, and most obvious, is via the emissions of greenhouse gases associated with the combustion of jet fuel. In 2020, international (not including domestic) aviation was the 10th biggest total emitter of carbon (171.15 Megatonnes) world wide (behind China, USA, India, Russia, Japan, International Shipping, Germany, Iran, and South Korea). In total, aviation accounts for about 2.5 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide.

The aviation sector affects the climate through two main ways — one being the creation of contrails. Brian Losito Photo

The second main way that aviation affects the climate system is through the creation of contrails. Contrails occur when moisture in jet exhaust condenses in the high altitude cold ambient environment to create lines of thin cirrus clouds, comprising ice crystals, whose net effect is to warm the Earth further. While innovation in flight path planning is ongoing in an effort to reduce contrail formation, off-the-shelf solutions to replace jet fuel appeared elusive, until recently.

On Aug. 6 and 7, 2022, I attended the Abbotsford International Airshow to learn about innovation in the aviation industry and the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) — sometimes known as biojet fuel. I was quite excited by what I discovered as it appears that Canada is uniquely positioned to be an international leader in this area.

It was evident to me that the aviation industry is deeply concerned about their greenhouse gas emissions and that they are investing heavily in carbon-neutral technology pathways. While we can expect to see the increasing use of electric engines, hydrogen fuel cell technology, and even potentially hydrogen combustion from onboard cryogenic storage tanks, these will likely only be available for commuter, regional, and short-haul flights (<120 minutes with <150 passengers) over the next decade or two. Unfortunately, such short-haul flights only account for about 27 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions from the aviation sector, whereas medium- and long-haul flights account for the remaining 73 percent. And so, if we want to reduce emissions from the aviation sector over the next few decades, widespread adoption of SAF made from renewable organic waste will be required.

A number of companies, including Neste, Lanzajet, and World Energy have either been recently established or are already heavily invested in producing SAF using renewable ethanol from waste (such as cooking oil) as an initial focus. Of course, establishing sustainable supply chains for organic waste that don’t involve food stocks (e.g. Canola) or limited supplies of cooking oil will be needed if SAF is to scale up globally. Other companies (e.g., Licella, Ensyn, Steeper Energy, etc.) are also heavily invested in exploring the potential of non-food source related waste (e.g. from forestry, municipal waste, sewage, waste plastic, etc.) as feed stock for renewable fuels.

Neste’sMY Sustainable Aviation Fuel” allows operators to reduce their GHG emissions by up to 80 percent.

And herein comes the potential opportunity for British Columbia and Canada.

First, the University of British Columbia’s Department of Wood Science is already considered an international leader in biofuel research and hosts the British Columbia Sustainable Marine, Aviation, Rail and Trucking (BC-SMART) consortium. British Columbia and Canada are well positioned to capitalize on investments in research and innovation in this sector.

Second, British Columbia has no shortage of wood or other organic waste that could potentially sustain domestic supply chains for biofuel production.

Third, wood waste, such as slash piles left behind after logging activities have concluded, are often either burnt in situ, left to decompose, or eventually act as a fuel source for wildfires. Removing this waste and converting it to biofuel has significant environmental co-benefits.

Fourth, wood waste is distributed throughout British Columbia, and in particular rural B.C. Capitalizing on the opportunities afforded by the harvesting of wood (or other organic) waste would provide distributed economic opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across our province.

In 2018, I wrote extensively about the challenges and opportunities associated with greenhouse gas reductions in British Columbia. In particular, I noted that embedded in the confidence and supply agreement that I signed with the B.C. NDP in 2017 was the following commitments:

Climate Action

  1. Implement an increase of the carbon tax by $5 per tonne per year, beginning April 1, 2018, and expand the tax to fugitive emissions and to slash-pile burning;
  2. Deliver rebate cheques to ensure a majority of British Columbians are better off financially than under the current carbon tax formula;
  3.  Implement a climate action strategy to meet our targets.

While British Columbia is on track to dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in the years ahead associated with our Clean BC climate plan, one of the policy commitments we didn’t deliver on was an expansion of the carbon pricing on burning slash piles. This is important because if a price is attached to slash emissions, an incentive is created to avoid this potential liability; therefore, forestry (and other) companies would be given an economic reason to extract slash from forest operations. Such a price could be set directly (on emissions) or indirectly (via regulation) as was done for fugitive emissions in the oil and gas sector.

So in summary, it strikes me that the sustainable fuel sector for long-haul transportation represents an incredible opportunity for innovation that British Columbia and Canada can capitalize on. The economic, environmental and social benefits of investments in this area appear to be far-reaching.

Coming back to the Abbotsford Airshow, one of the planes that I toured was the Boeing P-8A Poseidon. The P-8A is a military plane designed for long-range reconnaissance, surveillance, and submarine detection missions. And here is why this is important.

Canada is in the final stages of a procurement process “to equip the Canadian Armed Forces with a long-range manned Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4) and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) aircraft with extended capabilities to replace the CP-140 Aurora.”

Boeing’s P-8A Poseidon could be the most capable aircraft to replace Canada’s CP-140 Aurora. The aircraft is already capable of operating on a 50 percent blend of SAF.

The Boeing P-8A represents a solution that may meet the needs of this procurement. Why this is interesting is the P-8A is already capable of operating on a 50 percent blend of SAF, and Boeing has committed to meet a 100 percent SAF capability for its commercial aircraft by 2030.

Touring the P-8A felt like I was exploring a repurposed Boeing 737 — for good reason! The P-8A has a 737-800 body, 737-900 wings, a 737 cockpit, and a 737 engine with a substantive increase in available electrical power. Eighty-six percent of the commercial components within the P-8A are common with Boeing’s 737 series, the world’s most prevalent passenger jetliner.

While I do not have the expertise to assess the military capabilities of the P-8A, I learned that 150 of them — with over 450,000 logged flight hours — are in military use worldwide (in the U.S., India, U.K., Norway, and Australia). New Zealand, Germany, and South Korea are also on contract for the aircraft.

What excited me most about my tour of the Boeing P-8A at the Abbotsford Airshow is that I came away with a sense of optimism and hope for the future of the aviation industry. Imagine the potential for the Canadian military to show international leadership by investing in a sustainable replacement for its CP-140 Aurora fleet that would create a local market for sustainable air fuels produced from locally-sourced slash and other organic waste. While scaling up the use of SAF in the global aviation industry remains a challenge, Canada can do its part positioning itself as an early adopter and international leader in the area.

This article was originally published on https://www.andrewweavermla.ca/

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