Study shows how Australia and New Zealand can establish their own sustainable aviation biofuels industry
Tue 7 June 2011 – A study to determine the feasibility of the Australian and New Zealand aviation sector using sustainable biofuels to meet industry carbon reduction targets concludes that a bio-derived jet fuel industry could decrease aviation emissions by 17 per cent and generate more than 12,000 jobs by 2030. Commissioned by a range of aviation interests, the ‘Flight Path to Sustainable Aviation’ report does not make policy recommendations but is aimed at providing critical input to strategic policy and investment decision-making for both stakeholders and policy makers. It puts forward a roadmap scenario in which the aviation sectors of the two countries could achieve a five per cent biofuel share in their total fuel use by 2020, expanding that amount to 40 per cent by 2050. Taking a lead in the development of a sustainable aviation fuels industry could also create the opportunity for the region to export high-value engineering know-how to the world.
The report was carried out by CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), Australia’s national science agency that claims to be one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world. CSIRO says Australia and New Zealand are well positioned to establish a sustainable fuels industry given the region’s favourable climate, land base, stable geopolitical environments and comparative advantages in skilled labour including construction, research and development and efficient agricultural production.
The study calculates that by using a variety of existing and new non-food biomass resources and sustainable practices for growing them, there will be sufficient local biomass to support 46% of the aviation biofuel needs of both Australia and New Zealand by 2020 and over 100% of fuel needs by 2050.
Elsewhere in the world, oilseed crops such as jatropha and camelina have been identified as ideal biomass sources for aviation biofuels but these are not grown in Australasia – the growing of jatropha is actually banned in several Australian states as it is considered a noxious, invasive species. However, the study has identified a range of other biomass sources, with lignocellulose (wood and stems from trees and crops) being the most abundant and low-cost feedstock available at present, although it acknowledges the high costs associated with established refining processes.
Other potential biomass sources include bagasse (from sugar cane), forest residues, tallow, municipal solid waste, oilseed crops such as canola, pongamia (inedible oil yielding legume tree), coppice (a short rotation tree species, for example eucalyptus) and algae.
The report says that while there are some good prospects, non-food varieties of plant oil have not been produced to a significant scale. “Research, development and demonstration will need to focus on both commercial scale development of plant oil resources and reducing the cost of lignocellulosic refining processes to take advantage of the region’s full biomass potential,” it advises.
Among the challenges facing the aviation industry for biofuels will be competition with other industries for biomass feedstocks. “In particular, bio-derived road fuels are generally less expensive to produce than bio-derived jet fuels and receive higher unit revenue, making them a more likely target product for sustainable fuel refiners, at least in the short term,” it says.
Furthermore, to realise a reasonable return on investment, the high volatility of petroleum oil prices and technological uncertainty will mean investors requiring high returns or formalised off-take arrangements to secure project finance. “Investment costs can be reduced by integrating a new plant with existing infrastructure but the viability of the existing fuel refining industry in our region is declining in competitiveness because it is relatively old,” finds the study. “Further, in a period of capital market volatility, novel mechanisms of risk reduction or risk sharing, such as loan guarantees, may be required.”
The report outlines 14 recommendations for short term action in order to ensure a jet biofuel industry is established, allowing airlines to commence uptake by 2015 when the first commercial scale bio-derived jet fuel refining facility should start production.