Is the Solena / British Airways plan for jetfuel from London domestic waste greenwash?

Damian Carrington, of the Guardian, discusses the potential benefits of the plant in East London that is to be built by 2015 by Solena, to turn London’s household waste into jet fuel. It will also produce some electricity.  British Airways is pushing ahead with a plant that aims to turn half a million tonnes of Londoner’s household rubbish into 50,000 tonnes a year of jet fuel. Damian says: ” I’ll let you decide if this is greenwash or not: here’s some of the details.” BA’s Jonathan Counsel says “We accept we are a significant source of emissions, and growing,” he says. “Taking action is about earning our right to grow.” Boeing says the industry wants to get 1% biofuel into the global jet fuel supply by 2015,  which equates to 600m US gallons a year. And more if it can.  Why should this household waste go to aviation fuel, rather than energy for other uses?


British Airways, climate change and a load of rubbish

by Damian Carrington

16 March 2012   (Guardian)

The aviation industry has often appeared to be in denial on the subject of climate change, lobbying relentlessly in the UK for a third runway at Heathrow and attacking the European Union’s gentle curbing of their emissions.

But British Airways is pushing ahead with a plant that aims to turn half a million tonnes of Londoner’s household rubbish into 50,000 tonnes a year of jet fuel.  [That’s about 16 million gallons of green jet fuel each year.]  I’ll let you decide if this is greenwash or not: here’s some of the details.

The plant will based in east London and 80 lorries a day will pour garbage into a plasma chamber, which reaches 5,000C. The resulting gas is turned into jet fuel, Jonathon Counsell, BA’s head of environment, told me at the World Biofuels Markets conference in Rotterdam. The plant, due to being pumping fuel from 2015, will have enough energy left over to generate 33MW of electricity, he says.

The output is just 2% of BA’s current global fuel needs but Counsell says: “The first plant is always the hardest. If we can make the economics works, we will build two, three, four, five, very quickly.” He says London produces 20m tonnes of waste a year, and the UK 200m tonnes.

I asked Counsell why this should reassure those concerned about aviation’s rapidly growing contribution to climate change, when BA and others seem to have to be dragged to act.

On biofuels, he says there are “no alternatives” to liquid fuels, if the industry is to meet its own goal of a 50% cut in emissions by 2050 (compared to 2005).

So why, I ask, is BA opposing the EU’s plan to make all airlines flying in and out of Europe buy some carbon pollution permits from 2013, especially when BA’s website states: “As part of our commitment to being environmental responsible [sic] we have been a long-standing supporter of emissions trading. This sits at the heart of our climate change policy as the most environmentally effective and economically efficient mechanism for addressing aviation’s CO2 emissions.”

Counsell told me: “We always said to the EU take a smaller step in the first instance, start with a smaller scheme, prove it and roll it out.” That can be translated, I would say, as “I wouldn’t start from here.” He added: “The risk of retaliation and non-compliance [from the US, Russia, China and elsewhere] is now playing out.” Which means “I told you so.”

What about where we actually are now, with the carbon trading scheme kicking in from 2013? Counsell says BA wants the EU to compromise and reduce the scope of the scheme, saying it currently risks collapsing totally and “setting us back 10 years.” That may make sense to you, or sound like “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.” But BA might be genuinely worried about a big setback, not least because non-compliance from other airlines might, at some point when the cost rises above a few Euros a flight, make a competitive difference.

Self-interest is often the best guide, and so that expressed very clearly to me by aircraft manufacturer Boeing was striking. They are backing biofuels with their own cash, despite not operating flights and therefore not being a purchaser of fuel.

“When we look out a few decades, the energy scenario for our industry does not look healthy,” Darrin Morgan, Boeing’s director of sustainable aviation, told me. “Fuel is now the number one cost for the industry, more than the aircraft, more than people. It used to be number three or four. That cost will diminish the ability of our customers to buy our aircraft.”

Morgan says the industry wants to get 1% biofuel into the global jet fuel supply by 2015, which equates to 600m US gallons a year. “That is not to say we only want 1%, we want as many percent as we can get sustainably.” He agues the bio-jet fuel industry only began in July 2011, when the international fuel standard body, ASTM international, approved it for use.

He agrees with Counsell that low-carbon biofuels are essential if the industry is to achieve the carbon-neutral growth goal it has set itself, as more efficient planes and air traffic cannot compensate for the fast growth: “That is unless developed world wants to tell the developing world you can’t fly – and good luck with that!”

So it’s biofuels or bust, according to the aviation industry. I’d be very interested in your thoughts.

(Comment from Damian Carrington, in response to the question 

“Do you have any links to the biofuel industry/companies? A lot of your articles revolve around biofuels so was just wondering if you have any links to it or simply believe they are the best way forward.”

No none at al. I think sustainable biofuels will need be part of a sustainable future.)


There are lots of comments, with just a few of them copied below.

Wouldn’t it be better to turn the rubbish into electricity for everyone to use? It has got to be more efficient than turning the gas into a liquid fuel.



Whilst we continue to produce electricity by means that produce high carbon emissions any wasting of low emissions energy production on unecessary luxuries (for the large majority of journeys) such as flying is not part of a solution to the problems posed by anthropogenic climate change.

This is about the long term survival of an industry, though it is at least good to see them looking to the long term and acknowledging something of the reality we are likely to be facing.

“That is unless developed world wants to tell the developing world you can’t fly – and good luck with that!”

We should be showing the developing world that we don’t need to fly.



The plants are self-sustaining as part of the energy output is used to keep the plasma temperatures at 5000C. I believe they use around 20% of the output.

As for the trucks, [the energy used by the trucks bringing waste to the plant] they would be buring the same fuel over the same mileage covered if taking them to waste dumps.



I think biofuel is likely to be the only way the aviation industry can keep going. As long as we don’t forget that we cannot use the “waste” organic material from crops to create it, as this will need to be recycled back into soil fertility.

The same economic pressures that are forcing the airlines to adopt biofuels will force a reduction in use of oil-based fertilizers and pesticides. Which means adopting organic, permaculture style habits for soil care, which means no crop waste any more.

The idea of creating jet fuel from household waste intrigues me. Do you have any figures on if these generates more energy than it uses?

Finally what happens as we reduce the amount of household waste generated? Are we creating a link where reducing supermarket packaging leads to rising airfares?



Have you read this editorial 

on biofuels by Prof. Dr. Hartmut Michel of the Max-Planck-Institut for Biophysics?
Some exerpts from the text:

“[O]nly 11.8 % of the energy of sunlight is stored in the form of NADPH. This value then also will be close to the upper limit for the efficiency of the photosynthetic production of biohydrogen.”

“4.5 % is considered as the upper limit of the photosynthetic efficiency of C3 plants. However, in reality, values of only around 1 % are observed, even for rapidly growing trees like poplars.”

I feel I must quote the section on Biofuels and the overall recommendations in full:

When the yields of biofuels per hectare are known, one can easily calculate how much of the energy of the sunlight is stored in the biofuels. For German “biodiesel” which is based on rapeseed, it is less than 0.1 %, for bioethanol less than 0.2 %, and for biogas around 0.3 %. However, these values even do not take into account that more than 50 % of the energy stored in the biofuel had to be invested in order to obtain the biomass (for producing fertilizers and pesticides, for ploughing the fields, for transport) and the chemical conversion into the respective biofuel. This energy normally is derived from fossil fuels. The production and use of biofuels therefore is not CO2-neutral. In particular, the energy input is very large for the production of bioethanol from wheat or maize, and some scientists doubt that there is a net gain of energy. Certainly the reduction of CO2 release is marginal. The yield of second-generation biofuels where entire plants are used may be doubled. However, the energy input probably also increases. For example, in the production of biodiesel by the Fischer–Tropsch process, hydrogen has to be added because syngas obtained from biomass contains insufficient amounts of hydrogen. Taken together, the production of biofuels constitutes an extremely inefficient land use. This statement is true also for the production of bioethanol from sugar cane in Brazil. ”
Because of the low photosynthetic efficiency and the competition of energy plants with food plants for agricultural land, we should not grow plants for biofuel production. The growth of such energy plants will undoubtedly lead to an increase in food prices, which will predominantly hit poorer people. The best use of the biomass lies in its conversion into valuable building blocks for chemical syntheses. Usage of the available biomass for heating purposes or for generating electricity in power stations, thus replacing fossil fuels, is preferable over biofuel production. The saved fuels can be used for transportation purposes. Clearing rainforests in the tropics and converting them into oil palm plantations is highly dangerous because the underlying layers of peat are oxidized and much more CO2 is released by the oxidation of organic soil material than can be fixed by the oil palms. The rainforests possess an important role for the climate and constitute a valuable resource for novel compounds for drug discovery. With respect to the carbon footprint, it would be even much better to reforest the land used to grow energy plants, because at a 1 % photosynthetic efficiency, growing trees would fix around 2.7 kg of CO2 per square meter, whereas biofuels produced with a net efficiency of 0.1 % would only replace fossil fuels which would release about 0.31 kg CO2 per m2 upon combustion!

So the message here is clear, growing crops specifically for biofuel production is a complete waste. This needs to be stressed whenever talking about biofuels, lest people start associating all biofuels (reclaimed and crop-based) as something green.

Of course, reclamation of energy from refuse (as the plant mentioned in the article is designed to do) circumnavigates this huge inefficiency.



This is the story about the East London plant, from 2010:


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British Airways partner with Solena to convert trash into jet fuel


February 16, 2010

British Airways and Washington, D.C.-based bioenergy firm the Solena Group announced on Monday a partnership to establish Europe’s first sustainable jet-fuel plant and convert trash into jet fuel.
The new fuel will be derived from waste biomass and manufactured in a new facility that can convert several types of waste materials destined for landfill into aviation fuel.The airline said it plans to use the low-carbon fuel to power part of its fleet beginning in 2014.The self-contained plant will likely be built in east London. It’s expected to convert 551,000 tons of waste into 16 million gallons of green jet fuel each year.

Quick hits about the savings:

  • The plant offers lifecycle greenhouse gas savings of up to 95 percent compared to fossil-fuel derived jet kerosene.
  • The project will reduce the volume of waste sent to landfill.
  • The plant itself will be CO2 neutral, and will emit oxygen, plus small quantities of nitrogen, argon, steam and carbon dioxide.
  • The only solid waste product is an inert vitrified slag material, which can be used as an alternative to aggregates used in construction.
  • Tail gas can be used to produce 20MW of excess electricity for export to the national grid or converted into steam to be used in a district heating system.

The green fuel will be produced by feeding waste into a patented high temperature gasifier that produces BioSynGas, or biomass-derived synthetic gas. Using a process known as Fischer Tropsch, the gas is converted into biofuels to produce biojet fuel and bionaphtha.

Bionaphtha is used as a blending component in gasoline, as well as a feedstock for the petrochemicals industry.

The resulting fuel would make all of British Airways’ flights at nearby London City Airport carbon-neutral, and is the equivalent of taking 48,000 cars off the road per year, BA says.

British Airways has signed a letter of intent to purchase all the fuel produced by the plant, which will be built by Solena.

“This unique partnership with Solena will pave the way for realising our ambitious goal of reducing net carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2050,” said British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh in prepared remarks. ” We believe it will lead to the production of a real sustainable alternative to jet kerosene. We are absolutely determined to reduce our impact on climate change and are proud to lead the way on aviation’s environmental initiatives.”