Friday, December 03, 2010

hydrogen planes won't fly

The BBC reports that the aviation industry is giving up on its promise of hydrogen powered aircraft.

Millions of taxpayers' money has been funnelled into projects that did not seemingly take on board the the fact that hydrogen power would remain costly and polluting for some time to come.

They knew it wouldn't work. It was never intended to work. The whole point of alternative fuels for cars or planes is to pretend that the answer is just around the corner, so it's OK to keep burning oil today.

Anyone who thinks that there's a readily available sustainable alternative to fossil fuels doesn't understand what fossil fuels are. They are millions of years of solar energy captured and stored. You're not going to get that off a year's worth of plants or whatever.

"Kerosene is a very good fuel and very difficult to compete with," explains Rainer von Wrede who works in Airbus's research and technology department.

But we all want to be able to fly round the world, we all want to be able to take a tonne of metal as a security blanket with us every time we pop down the shops, so we want to think there's an alternative fuel to make it happen.

As one false solution becomes exposed, another rises to take its place. Oftentimes, the public ditching of one will be saved until the next one's ready to dazzle us with.

"The big deal at the moment is alternative jet fuels. Principally biofuels that come from sustainable sources, and do not compete with food and water, ecetera," Christopher Surgenor, editor and publisher of GreenAir Online tells the BBC.

Hate to tell you this Christopher, but all biofuel crops compete with food and water.

Just because we switch from using edible crops like sugar or corn to inedible ones like jatropha does not mean there's no competition. It's not the crop that's the issue, it's the land use. There is already something growing there, either crops or forest. The water supply is already in use. There simply isn't a load of 'spare' land and 'spare' fresh water lying around.

We can safely ignore all the guff about using 'marginal' land. Firstly, there isn't waste land - the harder it is to support life the more fragile and vulnerable the ecosystems we find there. Additionally, much of the land they speak of as 'marginal' certainly isn't regarded that way by the people who live graze their livestock there. But the real clincher is the fact that the gargantuan industrial processes involved want intensive farming and maximum production. That means using high quality land.

When Virgin started using a little coconut oil in its planes it was calculated that it would take a coconut plantation twice the size of France to supply the world's aircraft. And that's what we're facing. Next year Lufthansa begin using 50% biofuel on a (woohoo) short haul service. Wherever you grow biofuels, it puts the squeeze on food production and raises prices.

But the first thing we need to address is the supposed reason they're moving to biofuels - carbon savings. The simple fact is that biofuels usually cause greater carbon emissions than oil. That should be enough to get them discounted before we even look at the food and water issue.

Clearing land causes a huge amount of carbon to be released (and taking over farmland for biofuels causes new land to go under the plough, so either way biofuels are responsible for deforestation), and it takes years for this to be balanced by savings from not using oil - in some cases longer than the global oil supply will last.

In Indonesia the researchers found that converting land for palm oil production ran up the worst carbon debts, requiring 423 years to pay off. Producing soybeans in the Amazon would take 319 years of soy biodiesel to offset the carbon debt.

What's more, everybody knows it

Britain's promise to more than double its use of biofuels by 2020 is "significantly" adding to worldwide carbon emissions, the Government admitted yesterday.

They can power cars with electricity from renewable sources (though those are hardly oversupplied right now) and give us equally fast alternatives on road and rail. But for planes, there's no electric alternative, nothing so swift, nothing but planes and oil and biofuels.

Faced with the decline of oil production, they're moving to biofuels in the full knowledge that it is a climate disaster, yet are dressing it up as carbon savings cos, y'know, it's made from nice green natural plants and stuff.

So the roll-out begins, the carbon emissions increase and millions more of the poorest people on earth are on course for starvation.

1 comment:

Dunc said...

Hydrogen planes? Who fell for that line of cobblers? The only viable means of using hydrogen for air-travel went out of fashion after the Hindenburg disaster.