The State of “Green” Aviation Today
January 11, 2013
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  • By: David Parker Brown

    The general public is becoming more and more aware of climate change, and the aviation sector is embracing the “green” trend in a number of ways. Sure, the automakers may get all of the attention with their hybrid, electric, and biodiesel vehicles, many of them venturing into truly buzzworthy territory with Audi’s 200 mpg city car and Porsche’s 800-horsepower 918 hybrid. But many people – including aviation industry insiders – aren’t aware of the truly innovative solutions being developed and implemented to combat climate change and carbon emissions in the aviation sector.

    Aviation Biofuels
    Perhaps the most exciting trend is the rise of aviation biofuels, most of which are true drop-in replacements for petroleum-based jet fuels. UOP, a leading petrochemical producer owned by Honeywell, has been developing a plant-based biofuel branded Green Jet Fuel. It is produced from camelina, an inedible oilseed crop whose production doesn’t interfere with existing natural resources. This fuel has successfully powered more than 27 demonstrations flights since 2008. Just last month, five Gulfstream aircraft flew into this year’s National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention using a 50/50 mix of biofuel and Jet A. Honeywell claims this fuel has the ability to reduce carbon emissions by 60-85%.

    Honeywell is far from the only company working on jet biofuels. The Research Council of Canada recently undertook the world’s first civilian flight powered by 100% unblended biofuel. This flight utilized ReadiJet, a biofuel produced from an industrial oilseed crop derived from Ethiopian Mustard.

    Oilseed crops are not the only basis for aircraft biofuels. The first algae-fueled flights are shaping up for 2013. ENN, a leading Chinese bio-energy firm, has partnered with Airbus to produce algae-based biofuel for the Chinese aviation market. Test flights are planned to begin next year.

    “Green” Departures, Routes, Arrivals
    In Sweden, aviation innovators have been pioneering the use of existing technologies to make airline travel more resource-efficient. The Green Connection, a partnership between Sweden’s public air navigation authority and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), conducted more than 100 “green flights” in 2012. These flights aimed to reduce emissions and conserve fuel in three ways: green departures, direct routes, and green approaches.

    Green departures were accomplished through continuous rates of climb, while minimum-thrust, continuous descent approaches (CDA) made for “green arrivals.” Approach paths were shortened through RNP-AR performance-based navigation (PBN) technology, while Sweden’s FRAS initiative allowed for shortened direct routes.

    The result? Carbon emissions were reduced by 100-165 kg per approach, and flight paths were shortened by 20-plus kilometers. Swedavia CEO Torborg Chetkovich has stated of PBN technology: “Full utilization of this latest navigation technology would shorten flight paths at Swedavia’s airports, in one year alone, by a distance corresponding to twenty five around-the-world flights. This is a major contribution to fuel economy and reduced climate impact.”

    Currently, SAS is the only airline approved to utilize RNP-AR for “green approaches” into Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, but many other operators have the capability to utilize this technology.

    Carbon Offsetting
    If you’re in the aviation industry, you’ve probably heard the hype – and controversy – that surrounds the carbon offset market. Many airlines have enabled eco-conscious passengers to cancel out the environmental impact of their flight in one way or another. They may be able to contribute directly to a renewable energy project of their choice – typically a wind or solar project – or purchase carbon offsets. The companies offering these offsets, in turn, reinvest the proceeds in various clean energy projects. Airline travelers can often offset their flight for as little as $2. As you can imagine, the costs are much higher for those flying on corporate jets. Terrapass is perhaps the best-known of these companies, funding a wide variety of various projects, from wind-farms to landfill gas capture systems on landfills and farmsteads.

    Unfortunately, carbon offsets companies were largely unregulated at first, and many environmental experts questioned their true benefits. Additionally, consumers have historically had issues with the intangible nature of carbon offsets, preferring to know exactly where their money is going. Several third-party verifications have emerged to address this issue, such as the Verified Carbon Standard and Climate Action Reserve, but controversy remains.

    The Sustainable Airport
    Airlines and aircraft manufacturers are not the aviation sector’s only green innovators; airports are quickly jumping on the eco-bandwagon. The Chicago Department of Aviation sponsored the fifth annual Airports Going Green conference in November, and many sustainable solutions were showcased. Airports are testing LED lighting systems that brighten and dim based on factors such as daylight intensity and the number of people in the terminal. Goats have been used instead of gas-powered mowers at SFO for years, and Chicago O’Hare is currently conducting a 30-goat pilot program to do the same. ORD and Indianapolis are both working on large-scale solar installations, though the FAA is studying the possible safety concerns associated with glare from the panels themselves. Geothermal heating and cooling is being used or developed at many airports, and hybrid rental cars and green taxis are on the rise. Perhaps the most innovative solution of all? “Flying windmills” that soar high over airports on tethers, taking advantage of the winds aloft to generate much more wind power than conventional wind turbines.

    For many airports, the benefits are twofold. Not only do such innovations reduce emissions, many of them they allow airports to be less dependent on the traditional power grid – an important asset during blackouts like those that plagued the Northeastern US and Canada in 2003.

    As you can see, the aviation industry is packed with eco-innovators who are developing new technologies and harnessing existing ones to minimize fuel costs and make air travel more energy-efficient.