Can Biofuels Make Flying Clean and Cheap?

The first two transatlantic flights powered by biofuel blends made it safely to Paris. But blowing that much fuel to get somewhere is still a luxury.

Over the weekend, the first two transatlantic flights to be powered in part by biofuels made it safely to Paris. One, a business jet designed to ferry smaller (usually wealthy) groups, had a 50-50 blend of traditional jet fuel and biofuel in one of its engines; in the other plane, a larger, commercial jet, all four engines burned a blend that contained 15 percent biofuel.

The two planes were headed for the Paris Air Show, which is spotlighting alternative energy this year. For the first time, the show has a section dedicated to alternative jet fuels, and one of the show’s prime attractions is the Solar Impulse, a plane run on solar power alone.

With the wing span of an Airbus and the weight of a mid-sized car, the solar plane looks like a child coming out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: it’s been stretched and pulled in all of the wrong places. Its body resembles that of a flattened helicopter; it carries no passengers; it made its first international flight last month, and it had to make two attempts to get to Paris for the air show. It’s far from being commercially viable.

Biofuels, on the other hand, should come into common use within the next few years. Last week, the international standards association that oversees jet fuels provisionally approved specifications for the type of fuel used in this weekend’s flights, and if those standards become permanent, airlines could start using them in commercial flights. The Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, has predicted that by 2014, biofuels will be available in enough quantity for airlines to make a regular practice of blending them with jet fuels.

Traveling on a plane ranks high on the list of most environmentally unfriendly activities ever, and swapping even a portion of carbon-intense jet fuel out for biofuel will help make a dent in the world’s collective carbon footprint. It will also lessen the sting of ironies like Al Gore’s globetrotting-derived carbon debt or hordes of environmental reporters flying across the world to cover United Nations climate negotiations.

But blowing that much fuel—even biofuel—to get somewhere still counts as an indulgence, and biofuels won’t change that calculus. Plane tickets are still relatively cheap, but as the cost of fuel increases, airlines are raising their prices: By this past February, prices had ticked up more times in 2011 than in all of 2010, and they continued to rise. Airlines are looking for cost savings anywhere they can find them. A new industry study promised, for instance, that for every 25 pounds of in-flight magazines and other on-board paper eliminated, an airline could save $440,000 each year. The fees that airlines are heaping on their customers for bags, movies, music, food, blankets, seat-choice and every other convenience also subsidize the price of fuel. It might not feel this way to shivering, hungry passengers who don’t want to pay $8 to watch a movie as bad as Salt on their tiny seat-back screen, but the real luxury they’re paying for is the fuel that powers the plane.

Airlines like biofuel blends like the one that powered this weekend’s flight because they can run through the pipelines and engines already in use, saving airlines from the burden of investing in new infrastructure and allowing them to keep ticket prices down. Airlines are hoping that biofuels eventually might be cost-competitive or even cheaper than oil, but in the short term, these fuels are still a new technology that comes with attendant costs.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Shai Barzilay

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