Navigant Research Blog

Boeing Bets on Green Diesel

Mackinnon Lawrence — January 31, 2014

The race for aviation biofuels has accelerated in the last couple of years.  More than 1,500 individual flights at least partially powered by biofuels have occurred since Virgin Atlantic powered the first commercial jumbo jet in 2008 with a blend of conventional jet fuel and biofuel derived from babassu and coconut oil.  More than 30 commercial carriers have flown with a blend of biofuels over this period.  Most recently, Boeing announced it would pursue ASTM certification for use of renewable green diesel for use in commercial aviation.

Despite aviation biofuels’ broad appeal among key commercial and military stakeholders, limited production and high costs have remained challenging barriers to the 3% to 6% share of global jet fuel consumption that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) believes is achievable by 2020.

Derived from diverse resources like algae, camelina, jatropha, and used cooking oil, the current pool of aviation biofuels is shallow due in part to a lack of production capacity – at least as measured against prevailing expectations just half a decade ago.  This is why Boeing’s recent announcement to pursue green diesel certification could change the game.  For the aviation industry, certification would enable green diesel to be integrated into existing supply chains at a cost that is competitive with petroleum-based jet fuel.

Plenty of Capacity

More chemically similar to fossil-based diesel than conventional biodiesel, green (or renewable) diesel’s advantage over incumbent biofuels is its compatibility with existing infrastructure.  This means that it can be dropped into existing pipelines, storage tanks, and most importantly, existing engine hardware.  This avoids the substantial costs associated with building out additional infrastructure, which conventional biodiesel and ethanol require – a bottleneck that has stymied conventional biofuels’ penetration into the global fuels supply chain.

Another advantage of green diesel relative to other advanced biofuels is availability.  In 2013, though green diesel contributed to just 2.7% of the total gallons of biofuels produced worldwide, it made up more than 95% of the advanced biofuels pool.  A recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report called green diesel the most successful advanced biofuels pathway with respect to scaling up production capacity.  According to estimates compiled for Navigant Research’s Industrial Biorefineries report, there is currently more than 900 million gallons of green diesel production capacity deployed across the United States, Europe, and Singapore.

Just two pathways – Bio-SPK and FT-SPK – have achieved ASTM certification for use as jet fuel.  At their current stage of development, both pathways have proven to be prohibitively expensive to use on a commercial basis.  Alaska Air and Horizon paid $17 per gallon in 2011; the U.S. Navy, meanwhile, has paid between $20 and $65 per gallon for advanced biofuels used in various non-combat operations.  While it is important to note that these prices are for relatively small quantities used primarily for testing, with green diesel’s wholesale cost in the range of $3 per gallon, it is currently available at price parity with petroleum-based jet fuel.  Jet-A wholesale costs are currently just under $3 per gallon.

Flight Path

Although ASTM approval for green diesel would be a boon for advanced biofuels and the aviation industry in the near term, the availability of sustainable feedstock to support a mature industry remains a hotly debated issue.

At best, green diesel certification provides a bridge to more scalable thermochemical conversion pathways for aviation biofuels: fuels derived from large-scale algae production, or more likely, the realization of industrial-scale non-food oil production from promising feedstocks like jatropha or camelina.  At worst, it buys the aviation industry a few more years to build on the difficult progress that has already been achieved.

While Boeing and commercial airlines are among the winners if green diesel certification goes through in the near term, refining stalwarts like Finland-based Neste Oil, Honeywell’s UOP, and Valero are also well-positioned to ride a surge in investor activity.

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