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By Scott Hamilton
Dec. 5, 2022, © Leeham News: Battery power. Hybrid-battery. Hydrogen. Hydrogen-hybrid. Sustainable Aviation Fuel.
Whatever the path chosen by the hundreds of companies seeking greener commercial aviation, government regulations and tax breaks are going to be a part of the solutions.
The airline industry has a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. There are milestone targets between now and then. But will governments fully understand what’s technologically achievable in considering regulations or tax breaks? Will they fully understand which options are the best environmental solution?
Boeing developed an analytical tool called Cascade to help governments and regulators understand these issues. Importantly, Cascade takes into account the total life cycle factors for environmentally-friendly options.
The model analyzes carbon emissions for airplane fleet renewal, renewable energy sources such as sustainable fuel, hydrogen, electric propulsion, operational efficiency improvements, and advanced technologies. At the moment, Cascade remains in Beta testing internally. LNA has not had the opportunity to play with it.
“We’ve got to be honest about where we are on the life cycle emissions,” says Chris Raymond, the chief sustainability officer for The Boeing Co. “We’ve got to have a way to take that into account. We were just trying to start to illustrate to people that the energy generation upstream of whatever’s going to power the airplane is all part of the calculus that we have to think about. That’s really why we invented Cascade.”
Most of the attention today on ecoAviation promoted by many companies and press reporting talks about clean energy in operating the airplane or air mobility vehicles. This presents a distorted picture and whether the ideas are truly eco-friendly.
Raymond says that governments have got to take the total life cycles into account. There’s the full life cycle accounting of the fuel, and then the total climate effects of what happens beyond just CO2 emissions. “These are going to get more important as we go forward. For the total lifecycle, we must take into account the indirect and the direct dimensions of this.”
Boeing, which has explored hydrogen power in the past, isn’t a big proponent of this option. The lack of infrastructure and the need to have fuel tanks that can accommodate H2 at temperatures lower than minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit are just a couple of the problems. Nevertheless, Boeing continues to explore this option. It’s designed a composite tank for storage and use on airplanes.
Still, it’s betting on Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) as the best solution to reducing emissions. (Airbus also is pursuing SAF, but it is making a big bet on hydrogen.)
“We’re such proponents of Sustainable Aviation Fuel because there’s just going to be a lot of existing infrastructure,” Raymond says. Airbus, at its Aviation Summit last week, said the world’s largest producer of SAF, Neste, is adding 1.5m tons of capacity next year. This is just a fraction of the estimated global requirement of 300m-360m tons annually. Current global production is 100 thousand tons annually. The target goal by 2030 is 40m tons per year.
Cascade can be used by airlines to assess various ecoAviation options. Legislators and regulators can use it to determine what are the best options and impacts when adopting mandates for aviation.
Figure 2 illustrates how life cycle factors can be adjusted to assess the net benefit for any given eco-option.
While Boeing favors SAF as the best option, Raymond said all options will be needed to reach the 2050 goal.
“If somebody asks Boeing, what do we think it’s going to take to decarbonize aviation? We say, ‘It’s going to take all these things,’ and it’s going to take continued fleet renewal.
“You think about the airplanes that are starting to enter the market now with Boeing and Airbus, we’re going to see some positive benefits on fuel efficiency in the fleet. We were just starting to see that with MAXes and neos,” He said. Then the pandemic hit, slowing the transition to more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendlier aircraft. With the industry coming out of the pandemic, refleeting is increasing.
“We’ve got to continue to see these operational efficiencies. As small as they are, they’re valuable.”
One area that’s been stalled for decades is improving Air Traffic Management (ATM).
The US once touted a plan for a Next Generation (Next Gen) ATM. With an ATM that still relies in part on cathode ray tubes, the US’s system is woefully out of date. Next Gen was supposed to modernize the ATM. Billions of dollars in federal investment be required. But Congress, typically, failed to adequately fund Next Gen. Technology already is moving beyond the Next Gen ideas.
Even rejigging air routes to be more direct has stumbled under federal control. Private enterprises are stepping in, but the impacts are minuscule. Alaska Airlines has tested a system that can knock minutes off flight time. This doesn’t sound like much and in isolation, it isn’t. But multiply by flights per day times the number of aircraft an airline operates times 365, and these minutes add up to some real savings—in fuel and in emissions.
But the tests aren’t across Alaska’s system, let alone the entire US aviation industry.
The European Union touts a single economy. But its skies are anything but unified. Each country has its own ATM. A Single Sky in Europe is needed to adopt efficiencies that would benefit the environment.
Boeing, and Airbus, have common interests in pursuing the governments, even if they have different emphases. Where each agrees, however, is that there is no one or near-term solution to reducing emissions.
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