There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of using wood-based aviation fuel as a way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. While this may seem like a good idea, there are several reasons why it’s not a practical solution. Learn more about the problems with using wood-based fuels for the aviation industry.
We’re talking about “sustainable aviation fuel” (SAF), a 1:1 replacement for energy-dense jet fuel made from oil and gas. Technologies like wind and solar are not appropriate fuel replacements for planes. For current planes, we need to develop energy-dense sustainable fuels to replace traditional jet fuel.
Reason: Sustainable Aviation Fuel Technology is Unproven
Much like the push for cross laminated timber (also known as CLT), the hype for these alternative fuels is overblown. Shell has publicly stated that they’re planning to produce two million tonnes of sustainable jet fuel by 2025. Even if Shell could successfully produce a ten-fold increase in sustainable aviation fuels, it still wouldn’t be enough. It would be equivalent to just 0.6% of all aviation fuel demand in 2019 (330 million tonnes of conventional jet fuel).
Plus, the Center for Biological Diversity has identified that scaling up would cause significant climate harm. Through analysis, they found that the Biden administration would only be able to meet 4%-38% of their goal by 2050.
Successfully scaling up sustainable aviation fuel to ten times what it was in just three years would be nearly impossible. Even the woody biomass industry, which has grown rapidly at the expense of our forests, has not achieved 1000% increases in just three years.
Reason: Sustainable Aviation Fuel Is Expensive
Currently, sustainable aviation fuel comes from sources like animal fats, oils, and ethanol. The US Government is subsidizing research in these technologies, but the cost is still outrageous. For example, Reuters notes that the cost for sustainable aviation fuel can be up to eight times higher than conventional jet fuel.
The fact is that most of the biofuel industry is propped up on taxpayer money and subsidies. Time and time again, independent researchers like Taxpayers for Common Sense point out the unsustainable subsidies driving this faulty research.
Reason: The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions
The entire premise of biofuel production is that it reduces the carbon footprint. However, these carbon emissions calculations are based on something called a “lifecycle analysis” (LCA). LCAs take the entire lifecycle of a fuel into account. The lifecycle may be short for something like corn-based ethanol, but it can be decades or centuries for a tree-based biofuel like wood pellets. This is because while corn only takes a season to grow, a tree takes decades. Unfortunately, according to the worlds’ best scientists, we don’t have decades to address the climate crisis.
What is a lifecycle analysis?
Let’s say you’re burning corn ethanol as fuel. When you burn that fuel, the carbon stored in the corn gets emitted into the atmosphere. This is similar to when you burn a petroleum-based fuel like gas for your car. The difference is that with a biofuel more corn is growing for biofuels. That corn, over its life, “takes up” the carbon that’s emitted in the burning process. Because corn grows in just a season, the lifecycle for corn fuels is “complete” after a single season. This measure of completion is also known as “time to parity” among scientists.
But wood-based fuels are different. Wood pellets for electricity and sustainable aviation fuel for airplanes are both problematic because of the amount of time it takes for wood to grow back and take up the carbon from when wood fuel was burned. In other words, it’ll take a season for corn fuels to reach “time to parity”, but it will take decades for a wood-based fuel to do the same.
Furthermore, investigations from watchdogs and independent news outlets have shown that many wood pellets come from natural forests. This is different from corn grown for a specific purpose. Natural forests cut down for wood pellets aren’t purpose-grown. In terms of the climate, we’d be better suited if that forest was left to grow. Forests absorb carbon and have many other benefits, like clean water, habitat for animals, and recreation.
Liquid, concentrated fuels are much more carbon intensive
It takes a lot more energy to make a gallon of liquid jet fuel than it does to make an equivalent amount of wood pellets. Much like how gasoline is refined, wood needs to be pelletized and then further refined to create a concentrated liquid fuel. Numbers are still emerging, but we know that in corn this pattern holds true. It takes a lot of energy to produce a single gallon of corn-based fuel. One resource says that it takes over 26 pounds of corn to produce a single gallon of corn ethanol.
Reason: We need to fight climate change NOW
We don’t have decades to fight climate change. We have less than a decade to get our carbon emissions under control. So wood should not be used for biofuels production or for other fuels either. The best place for our trees is in the ground, actively storing carbon.
Trees also have benefits beyond their carbon footprint. Forests provide us with fresh water, they improve soil quality, they clean our air, and they shade us from very hot temperatures. Forests reduce emissions and give us places to fish, hike, bird watch, and more. Increasing feedstock production for biofuels from our forests is going to severely reduce these “ecosystem services” that the trees provide. The environmental effects of clearcuts are dramatic and last for decades.
Reason: It’s A Bad Deal For Sourcing Communities
Look at what biofuel demand has done to the communities of the US South. Residents complain of increased dust, flooding during rain events, and even breathing problems. Increasing logging in the South is only going to hurt these communities more. There is already a targeted effort to place biofuel production facilities in the South. Creating demand for sustainable aviation fuels is just going to make it worse.
We’re already seeing these impacts of sustainable aviation fuel (jet fuel). LanzaJet has received $50 million to build a sustainable aviation fuel plant in Soperton, GA. Soperton is in Treutlen County, which has a poverty rate of over 23%, more than double the national average. After a wood pellet plant opened in Northampton County, NC, the poverty rate actually increased from 26.3% up to 28.5%.
There are other ways to reduce carbon emissions. Many companies have slashed their travel budgets, and many conference and event planners have switched to hybrid or remote-only events. Increasing efficiency with new technologies is another way for us to reduce GHG emissions without relying on faulty lifecycle analyses for biofuels and jet fuel.
Final thoughts about the aviation industry and sustainable aviation fuel
The aviation industry is responsible for about 3% of global carbon emissions. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s actually more than the entire country of Germany emits.
So when we’re talking about reducing our reliance on oil and gas for jet fuel, the aviation industry is a good place to start. Solar, wind, and hydrogen-powered planes are still the stuff of fantasy. But “sustainable” aviation fuel made from wood isn’t the solution either.
We need to control greenhouse gas emissions today, not fifty years from now. Join us in calling on President Biden to protect our forests.