E-CHO industrial biofuel complex in France: so-called sustainable aviation fuels are a false solution

by | 29 Jan 2024 | Position

Stay Grounded explained its position on so-called sustainable aviation fuels during the preliminary public consultation on the E-CHO project for an industrial biofuel complex in Lacq (in the South-West of France).
BioTJet, one of the three planned plants, is meant to produce e-biokerosene for aviation from biomass and hydrogen produced on-site using electricity from the grid. The very high need for biomass, mainly from local forests, has led to strong opposition from associations for the protection of forests.
Stay Grounded has stressed that the climate emergency implies preserving forests in their essential roles as carbon sinks and as a source of biodiversity, and that biomass and renewable electricity should be reserved for the decarbonisation of uses more essential for the entire population. The only way to quickly reduce aviation CO2 emissions is to reduce air traffic.

Too little, too late

The aviation sector is basing its decarbonisation strategy on the promises of technology and using them to justify its continued growth. It proffers a range of so-called sustainable solutions. As we demonstrate in our aviation greenwashing fact sheets, “efficiency improvements” have always resulted in increased emissions and so-called sustainable alternative fuels pose too many problems in terms of resources to be deployed quickly and massively. As for hydrogen-powered aircraft and electric aircraft, they will not be operational before 2050 for medium- and long-haul flights, which currently account for the bulk of emissions (CO2 and others).

Even if these technological solutions kept their promises, they would not make it possible to attain carbon neutrality by 2050, as the sector has committed to do, a commitment that is itself insufficient given the slow pace of its decarbonisation plan. According to this plan, aviation CO2 emissions would only start to really decrease from 2035 onwards. However, according to UN projections, keeping global heating below 1.5°C would require a 55% reduction by 2030. While the objectives for 2030 and 2050 are inseparable, the aviation sector is only committing to the one furthest away because it refuses to reduce air traffic now, the only means of achieving the objective for 2030. The sector is buying time by letting people think that it still has time to continue its growth as before. That is a falsehood, it doesn’t! Time has run out!

Not enough biomass for everyone

Because of the necessary energy transition , biomass is coveted by many economic players, including wood, agricultural and forestry residues. It will also be necessary to limit withdrawals to preserve enough biomass to absorb all the atmospheric CO2 necessary in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, i.e. to compensate for emissions that could not be eliminated. Considering that:

  • some flights can be replaced by less carbon-intensive ground transport,
  • that 50 % of passengers travel for non-essential needs (tourism, leisure),
  • that flying is the privilege of a wealthy minority who travel a lot,

We affirm that: renewable energies (biomass and electricity) must be reserved for the decarbonisation of the most essential uses that concern as many people as possible.
Care must also be taken to ensure that they are not wasted and therefore they must be used first and foremost in the most efficient way. In this respect, the process which will be used by BioTjet is low efficiency, much lower than that obtained if electricity were used for electric cars and biomass to produce heat.

We therefore call for air traffic to be limited to its essential uses; at least as long as renewable energy resources remain insufficient. The French are willing to do this: according to a poll conducted for BFMTV, “59% say they are ready to fly even less so as to enable France to save energy and 20% say they are already doing so. ”

Overestimated emission reductions

Elyse Energy indicates that the fuels produced will meet the target of a 70% reduction in carbon emissions. But even if the company manages to meet the regulatory requirements, we have serious doubts about the reality of this reduction.

First, since the calculation of the carbon footprint assumes that biomass is carbon neutral because it is renewable. This would be the case if replanted trees immediately regained the CO2 absorption capacity they will have at maturity, but this is obviously not the case. Felled trees leave a void that takes decades to fill, at precisely the time when they are needed most to prevent uncontrollable irreversible climate change induced phenomena.

Secondly, the climate impact of aircraft is not only due to CO2. Contrail-induced cirrus clouds and NOx derivatives have twice the impact of CO2, an impact that so-called sustainable aviation fuels only partially reduce.

Low chances of success

At a Senate hearing in April 2023, the CEO of TotalEnergies, Patrick Pouyanné, dismissed second-generation biofuels: ” Today we don’t know how to make 2G from forest or plant residues on an industrial scale (…) We put a lot of money into it, with Shell and the others. But we’re now dealing with biotechnology here. That works in the lab, as a pilot, but It doesn’t work on an industrial scale. This statement is corroborated by the NGO Biofuelwatch, which explained in a 2018 report that no industrial project based on cellulose gasification has ever been successful, and that the recent Red Rocks Biofuels project in the US also failed after engulfing $75 million in government grants and $300 million of a loan guaranteed by the state of Oregon.

Therefore, we warn the French government and local authorities who might be tempted to support the E-CHO project: not only is 2nd generation bio-kerosene a poor solution for global heating, but its chances of success are low.

Contribution to the public consultation filed by Rester sur Terre (Stay Grounded) on January 17, 2024 (Text, illustrations and appendices)

BioTJet in numbers:

  • Capacity: 75,000 t/year of e-biokerosene, i.e. 1% of French kerosene consumption in 2019 (+ 35,000 t/year of e-bionaphtha for the plastics industry)
  • Required hydrogen: 32,000 t/year, using 230 MW of electrical power
  • Required biomass: 300,000 t/year of dry matter, 50% of which would be wood feedstock mainly from local forests, which would mean cutting down about 10,000 ha per year.
  • Area required for the factory: 45 ha (79 ha for the whole complex, including a hydrogen production plant using electrolysis, a plant producing e-methanol for maritime transport and industry, and the BioTJet plant) )
  • Investment: €2 billion (for the whole complex)
  • Expected commissioning: 2028

A sister project in Gardanne (near Marseille):

Hynovera, another French project for the production of aviation biofuels and methanol, was the subject of a preliminary consultation in 2022, which led its sponsor to modify the project : the production of e-metahnol has been abandoned, biokerosene will be produced by fermentation of biomass and no longer through gasification as in the Lacq project, and the production capacity will be halved.

Photo credit: Richard Dorrell – Creative Commons license (CC-By-SA)