Skip to content

Just plug in and switch on!

The smartest, simplest and easiest way to help reduce your power bill!

Savings Guide

Destination Clean Skies

Energy saving planes

According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the airline industry accounts for 2-3% of worldwide carbon emissions. In 2007 the European Commission found that emissions from aviation had risen by 87 percent since 1990 as a consequence of the increasing volume of air travellers. Indeed, as the number of passengers travelling each year is skyrocketing – from 2.4 billion in 2010 to a projected 16 billion in 2050 – so is the corresponding malignant effect on the environment.

The aviation industry began to seek for alternatives to fossil fuel at the turn of the century; aside from pressures relating to environmental concerns, it has its own reasons to support this change. The industry’s fuel bill for 2010 was $139 billion and it now accounts for about 35 percent of an airline’s operating cost, with ever volatile prices and growing uncertainty of supply.

As a result, clean and energy efficient alternatives are in demand. Right now though, the only real option is biofuel, a sustainable fuel that is both more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than conventional fuel.

Biofuel: The Short-to-Medium Answer

Great leaps forward have been made in a short time. Virgin Atlantic was the first major carrier to use biofuel for a commercial flight in 2008 and everyone from Airbus, to the U.S. Air Force, and even NASA, have begun to explore its possibilities, with over 1,500 test flights completed so far.

Yet there is a long way to go until it is a viable option. As of 2012, the price of aircraft biofuel was at least twice the price of conventional kerosene. The main problem is that production on commercial scale is still nascent.

Encouragement for biofuel does abound though and development is progressing swiftly. In 2011 a conglomerate including Qantas, Virgin, Boeing, and the Australian Defence Department boldly committed to using 5 percent biofuel on all commercial flights by 2020, and a continued increase to 40 percent by 2050. They expect the first commercial refining facility to be operational by 2015 and a second in 2020.

The European Commission has similarly launched an initiative to speed up the commercial production of biofuel. They aim to produce two million tons by 2020; yet this is in stark contrast to the 50 million tons of kerosene European airlines consume each year.

The use of biofuel is a step in the right direction: in time will reduce the large carbon footprint of the aviation industry; but there is a down side. The growing demand for renewable fuels has resulted in the conversion of natural habitats, such as grasslands and rainforests, into farmlands for the raw materials. The destruction of ecosystems in turn has increased the levels of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. In light of this the aviation industry’s adoption of biofuels can be seen as simply transferring the problem.

Biofuel was never intended to be the ultimate answer. Rather, it is the best short-to-medium term response to the challenges that face the aviation industry today.

Short Term Answers: Energy Efficient Solutions

So if biofuel alone doesn’t solve the problem, what other steps is the aviation industry taking?

A very simple and effective way to reduce energy consumption, and therefore the dependency on fuel, is the use of lighter materials in the construction of aircraft. Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is a great example of this. Composite materials make up 50 percent of the primary structure and advanced engine technology means greater energy efficiency. The Dreamliner consumes 20 percent less fuel than other similarly sized aircraft and Boeing aims for an efficiency increase of 15 percent with each new model released.

Another way airlines have significantly reduced their dependency on fuel is the optimization of air traffic management (ATM). The gradual integration of the world’s air traffic systems and choreography of traffic patterns, means flight time is being reduced and fuel saved. Currently this is developing at a regional level, but has the potential to reduce fuel consumption globally by around 15 percent.

Long Term Answers: Hydrogen Fuelled & Solar Power

Hydrogen (H2) aircraft have been the subject of much research since the 1950s. Renewable H2 is an ideal alternative as it produces low levels of greenhouse gases. However, right now the technology doesn’t allow for efficient production – it is far more expensive than fossil fuels – and major alterations in aircraft design would be required. Yet according to Pennsylvania State University, large hydrogen aircraft could be constructed as early as 2020, although not until 2040 would these aircraft be ready to enter commercial service.

Perhaps the most ideal solution though is solar-electric power. This is still very much a long term prospect (again the technology is lagging far behind the vision); but steps in the right direction are being made. A great example of this is the British QinetiQ Zephyr that set the record for the longest unmanned flight of any kind in 2008, over 82 hours.

Soaking up solar energy by day, saving electricity, and reverting to batteries at night, the Zephyr is just one of many aviation projects around the word moving slowly, literally as well as figuratively, towards an ideal solution.

So What’s The Solution?

Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic believes the aviation industry could move from being one of the dirtiest to being one of the cleanest rapidly. And not only will the environment and the airlines gain from this; a reduction in fuel costs would also lead to reduced airfares.

There is a long way to go and while biofuel is the best option we have right now, it is not the ultimate solution. It is merely one of the many stopovers we must make on a much longer journey to achieving clean skies.