BA buys household waste for fuel

Sensemaking / BA buys household waste for fuel

07 Jan 2011

British Airways looks closer to home to satisfy its thirst for fuel

Aviation’s thirst for low-carbon fuel has created a market opportunity for waste processing in east London. US-based biomass energy company Solena plans to have its first facility up and running by 2014, producing synthetic fuel gas for planes from municipal waste.

Significantly, the company has had no problem with finding customers. British Airways has signed a ten-year agreement to buy all Solena can produce at a pre-agreed (but undisclosed) price. Mindful of its pledge to halve its carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the airline has also put a call out to other suppliers of possible alternatives to kerosene, either neat or as a blend, for a joint programme of lab, test rig and full engine tests with Rolls Royce. But it is counting on Solena to deliver at least as much fuel as it needs for a 50-50 mix with standard aviation kerosene, to power all its flights out of nearby London City airport.

But will the new fuel achieve the carbon reductions that BA is looking for? David Fulford, renewables expert and Ashden Awards judge, is hesitant: “Energy from waste is definitely attractive, as it saves on landfill. Whether the process reduces carbon emissions is another matter.” It partly depends on the composition of the waste, he explains. If it’s made up of plastics from oil, the system recovers the carbon dioxide locked in the plastics, but then releases it as a fuel. Biomass waste also releases CO2 back to the atmosphere. Rupert Fausset, transport expert at Forum for the Future, agrees: “BA will have to be completely open about where this ‘waste’ comes from, if it is to show that it is making real, additional emissions cuts.”

Green plant low down
The east London plant will process 500,000 tonnes of waste biomass a year, yielding 16 million gallons of liquid biofuel. Gas, a by-product of the conversion, will be sold back to the grid, or used in a district heating system.

Solena and British Airways used this year’s Farnborough International Air Show to publicise their new fuel initiative. The final site choice for the planned east London plant, dubbed ‘GreenSky’ by the partners, is to be announced soon.

– Roger East

Image credit: Llja Masik / Shut

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