WestJet Airlines Ltd is hoping its new partnership with a central Alberta research centre will lead to the development of an environmentally friendly biofuel that will help the carrier reduce its carbon footprint.
The Calgary-based airline is working with the Clean Energy Technology Centre in Drayton Valley to explore the feasibility of using organic material — such as wood waste — as a feedstock in jet fuel production. If the results of the initial study are positive, WestJet hopes that one day there could be an aviation biofuels production facility right here in Alberta.
“We’d be a very interested end user,” said Geoffrey Tauvette, WestJet’s director of environment and fuel. “Biofuels represent for aviation the best opportunity to further reduce our emissions.”
Aviation currently accounts for two per cent of global carbon emissions. The industry has stated its goal is to reach “carbon neutral” growth by 2020 and a 50 per cent decrease in carbon emissions by 2050. Biofuels are seen by many as the industry’s best chance of reaching that goal, because — unlike other sources of power like solar or electric — they can use the same supply infrastructure as conventional jet fuel and do not require the adaptation of aircraft or engines.
In 2011, regulators approved the use of biofuels on commercial flights and that same year KLM flew the world’s first commercial biofuel flight — using used cooking oil — to fly 171 passengers from Amsterdam to Paris. Since then, 22 airlines around the world have performed over 2,000 commercial passenger flights with blends of up to 50 per cent biofuel, using everything from algae to sugarcane as feedstock.
While WestJet hasn’t flown any biofuel powered flights yet, it has participated in a number of feasibility studies. Tauvette said one of the biggest challenges for the airline industry is settling on a sustainable and affordable source of feedstock to make the biofuel. Right now, biofuels are still more expensive to produce than traditional jet fuel.
“If we don’t actively look at this and improve the technology … We’re never going to cross that barrier,” he said.
Drayton Valley Mayor Glenn McLean said his town established the Clean Energy Technology Centre and its surrounding “BioMile” industrial park with the hope of attracting companies, organizations, and research projects in the biofuels sector. The town’s close proximity to the forestry industry means it is well situated for clean energy projects that require large volumes of wood waste.
He said while there are other initiatives currently underway at the Clean Energy Technology Centre, the WestJet project is the largest and potentially most significant.
“There’s going to need to be a location to conduct some kind of pilot initiative, and this is where we envision that being located,” McLean said. “It’s very promising, both for the development of aviation biofuels but also for the prominence it’s lending to the Clean Energy Technology Centre.”
WestJet isn’t the only Canadian airline looking closely at biofuels. Earlier this month, Air Canada — which has flown several biofuel flights in recent years — announced it will participate in Canada’s Biojet Supply Chain Initiative (CBSCI), a three-year project with 14 stakeholder organizations to introduce 400,000 litres of sustainable aviation biofuel into a shared fuel system at a yet to be determined Canadian airport.
Porter Airlines operated Canada’s first biofuel revenue flights in 2012, between Toronto and Ottawa, using a 50-50 combination of biofuel and traditional jet fuel in one of its engines.