Biofuel Flight From England Draws Flak

If there were naysayers sounding off when KLM Royal Dutch carried 70 passengers from Amsterdam to Paris in July in a plane powered by a 50-50 mix of biofuel and conventional fuel, we didn’t hear them. Likewise when Finnair used biofuel for a commercial flight from Helsinki to Amsterdam. Thomson Airways, however, was not so fortunate for its maiden biofuel flight, from Birmingham, England, to Arrecife, in the Canary Islands.

As soon as Thomson announced its intention to make the flight – the first commercial flight from the U.K. using biofuel – Friends of the Earth was out with a press release denouncing the plan. “Biofuels won’t make flying any greener – their production is wrecking rainforests, pushing up food prices and causing yet more climate-changing emissions,” the organization’s Kenneth Richter said in a statement. In addition, the groups Biofuelswatch and AirportWatch put out a joint statement calling the Thomson flight “dangerous greenwash.” And here Thomson thought it was doing a good deed.

biofuel flight, Thomson

image via Thomson

“We firmly believe the adoption of sustainable biofuels by airlines will help achieve the government’s carbon budget which commits the U.K. to reduce its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2025,” Managing Director Chris Browne said. “Most strikingly, sustainable biofuel has the potential to reduce aviation emissions by up to 80 percent in the long term.”

The fuel that Thomson used – the flight went on as planned – was supplied by SkyNRG, which also supplied KLM and Finnair for their flights. While Friends of the Earth’s claims might indeed have validity for some biofuels, SkyNRG’s product for those demonstration flights was produced by Dynamic Fuels, a partnership between the synthetic fuel manufacturer Syntroleum and the meat production giant Tyson Foods. Together, the companies established a venture that has been converting fats, oils and greases into fuels at a plant in Geismar, La., just south of Baton Rouge, since late last year. It’s not precisely clear if Thomson’s fuel came from the same producer, but the airline said emphatically: “The biofuel purchased by Thomson Airways is sourced entirely from used cooking oil.”

So this biofuel apparently has the virtue of not being made directly from food crops. Whether that will be the case in the future is less certain, however. SkyNRG has said [PDF] that it “does not commit to one single feedstock or technology,” and that “the sustainability of alternative aviation fuels depends on many factors and has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Please – apply a little common sense and discernment before going all starry-eyed over the prospects for biofuels made from waste cooking oil or animal fat. Global consumption of aviation fuel is over 200 million tonnes per year. 2.3bn people have flown in the past 12 months. That’s 90kg (roughly 200 pounds) of aviation fuel per passenger. In Britain, we buy (only) about 9 kg of ‘fats’ per person for domestic consumption. We thrown a tiny proportion away, but not in a way that can be easily recovered. The processed food and catering industry obviously uses a lot of cooking oil and its waste can be recovered. But to imagine that is going to be more than a few pounds per person each year is fantasy.nu00a0nu00a0nu00a0nIn fact the UK already makes road transport biodiesel from used cooking oil and animal fat, and now imports both from the USA -because there is a shortage here.nu00a0nu00a0nu00a0nThomson might be able to run a few press-friendly demonstration flights on used cooking oil, but when volumes are needed they will have to switch to proven commodity vegetable oils like palm and soybean, grown in huge monocultures responsible for deforestation and ruined lives. Thomson will point to a ‘plan’ to use Babassu and Camelina. Both are low yielding, and there is no viable supply chain. Try googling for volume supplies of either.nu00a0nu00a0nu00a0nSkyNRG made this point in response to Biofuelwatch / Airportwatch criticism of the Thomson test biofuel flight:nu00a0nu00a0nu00a0n”In addressing the challenge to replace fossil kerosene in a sustainable way, aviation has no alternative but liquid hydrocarbons from bio-based (waste) sources.”nu00a0nu00a0http://www.greenaironline.com/photos/SkyNRG_reaction_to_AirportWatch.pdfnnu00a0nIn effect this is a statement from the industry that “only waste-based aviation biofuels are sustainable”, yet Thomson themselvs have said that they intend to use Camelina and Babassu nuts as preferred feedstocks to eke out limited supplies of UCO. Is there a thought-out plan or not?