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October 30, 2008

Look! Up in the Air! It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's... Regulation!!

There's been a small tizzy in the alt. energy world over the consequences of Boeing's recent announcement that it could certify biofuel for use in its planes within three years. As Treehugger pointed out, this is not the same thing as actually fueling planes with the stuff, since there's hardly any of it around. And while, surprisingly, this commitment from Boeing seems genuine (you know it is when a Boeing engineer knocks corn ethanol as being a subsidy regime and not a fuel option), it did not sprout full-formed from Boeing management's collective forehead.

It happened because Europe said so. Europe, much to the consternation of the airlines, has included airplane emissions in its newly launched cap-and-trade system. While most airlines (especially US carriers) are screaming about the resulting increase in transatlantic ticket prices (by up to $50!! Horrors!!) along with the end of the world as we know it - which will occur in 2012 when the cap actually goes into effect - some airlines like Virgin Atlantic (along with manufacturers like Boeing) are actually doing something. Funny how that works. The government makes a law that forces you to cut emissions by a date certain and so you go ahead and start figuring out how to cut emissions. How radical.

At the same time, this all shows just what a pickle we're in. On the one hand, airplane emissions are some of the most damaging to the environment (lots of carbon burned at high altitude is like lots and lots and lots of carbon burned at ground level). On the other hand, we're not about to ground the entire airline industry forever. On the OTHER hand, there's no zero emissions solution for airplanes - running jet engines on batteries won't work and nuclear powered jets of the future aren't going to happen (this is where Mr. Fusion would come in handy, by the way).
As I lack a fourth hand, that leaves biofuel as the only real solution.

Except to make biofuel an option, we'd have to commit a huge percentage of the world's crop-land to growing the soy or grass to make it (that's assuming we work the kinks out of cellulosic ethanol soon). That's why I've got my hopes all tied up in pond scum algae. Algae can actually make diesel fuel today. Unfortunately, you can only do it about a beakerful at a time, which won't really make a dent in the 19 billion gallons of kerosene you'd need annually to power the world's aircraft. One of the biggest problems algae biofuel development faces is that when grown at commercial scale in huge fields or in enormous vats the organisms start to crowd each other out and die for lack of sunlight. Which is why the group successfully growing algae in the dark might hold the key (their algae also produces excellent cooking oil, but that's the subject for another post).

Anyway, the point of all this is that 1) cap-and-trade sure gets the attention of senior management and 2) even the "obvious" solutions to cutting emissions require massive investment and new infrastructure. But you probably knew that already.

Photo by The Shane H used under CC license


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Anonymous Jon said...

Hey, maybe they can get Dick Cheney to help them out. He'll soon be out of a job, he knows about oil, likes to work in the dark, and hes used to working with scum. Perfect!
Great post, as always.

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