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Alternate Approach: A fuel of dreams

The world’s second largest oil-producing country is ready to place a bet on the future of alternative fuel for aviation. The province of Ontario has reached an agreement with Los Angeles-based Rentech to convert unusable Crown timber into low-carbon jet fuel.


July 6, 2011
By David Carr

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The world’s second largest oil-producing country is ready to place a bet on the future of alternative fuel for aviation. The province of Ontario has reached an agreement with Los Angeles-based Rentech to convert unusable Crown timber into low-carbon jet fuel.

The Olympiad Renewable Energy Centre would be located in White River in Ontario’s northwest, but appears to be conditional on several factors, including Rentech tapping into the federal government’s NextGen Biofuels Fund (NGBF), a $500-million pot of cash used to cover 40 per cent of an energy project’s development and construction costs up to $200 million. The money would be repaid from a percentage of revenues.

Rentech is hitting all the high notes, including jobs in a region hard hit by the slump in the forestry sector, a steady flow of low-carbon jet fuel for Canadian air transport and an 18 per cent equity stake for the Pic River First Nation. Cynics may position this as a snake oil salesman riding into town to get rich on the gullible locals. They would be wrong.

AlternateApproach  

In April 2010, a United Airline Airbus A319 took off from Denver International Airport with a 60/40 mix of conventional fuel and RenJet synthetic fuel in one of its two engines. According to the International Air Transport Association’s 2010 Report on Alternative Fuels, nine airlines have conducted test flights using a variety of alternative fuel blends, including sugar cane, wood chips, algae and oil-rich plants such as camelina and jatropha, and at least three more test flights are planned over the next two years.

Assuming the Olympiad Project clears the NGBF hurdle, it is expected to annually convert 1.1 million cubic metres of dead wood into 85 million litres of RenJet and 43 million litres of naphtha (a flammable liquid commonly found in lighter fluid, industrial cleaning solvents and the fuel used to fire up that old Coleman camp stove) beginning in 2015. Producers are hesitant to build refineries without a customer guaranteeing to buy every last drop of inventory. Rentech is in discussions with several Canadian operators and it is likely that the outcome of those negotiations will also be a factor in whether the Olympiad Project gets the so-called green light.

The Canadian output is a drop in the bucket compared to the 946 million litres of RenJet the company is contracted to supply annually to 13 U.S. and international airlines. Beginning in 2012, ramp vehicles for eight airlines at LAX will gas up with Rentech’s ultra-low-sulphur diesel fuel, to be produced from green waste and reported to leave a near-zero carbon footprint.

Making fuels greener and consuming less are essential ingredients in air transport’s plan to be carbon neutral by 2020 even as the industry fills the skies with more airplanes. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recently awarded $125 million to Boeing, GE Aviation, Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce North America to research and develop technologies to reduce jet engine fuel consumption and emissions. British Airways reports that conventional fuel is responsible for 99 per cent of its carbon footprint, and has set a target to cut net carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2050.

The airline has entered into a partnership with the Solena Group, a Washington D.C.-based renewable energy company, to build a plant at Heathrow Airport to convert some of London’s four million tonnes of waste into biojet fuel by 2014.

Despite the progress, companies like Rentech and Solena still have a tough slog before producing sufficient quantities to quench a thirsty industry. The bill for producing enough fuel for the global airline industry remains unclear both in dollars and environmental impact. At $1.20 to $1.40 a litre, the cost of producing alternative fuel for aviation is double that of Jet A. More than $600 million will be spent on the two refineries in White River and Heathrow to produce over 100 million litres of fuel, or a fraction of the 89 billion litres that the U.S. domestic airlines and Air Force guzzle annually. It is also not clear what impact supplying the feedstock necessary to produce biofuels especially will have on land use and on the global food supply.

All of these initiatives may lead to the ultimate pan industry trade-off: wean the massive automotive industry off both fossil fuels and biofuels in favour of electric in order to supply the aviation industry with increasingly cleaner fuel.

In the meantime, Canada needs a presence in the growing market for alternative aviation fuel, and appears to have stalked the right horse.


David Carr is a Wings writer and columnist.