As you most likely know, I look into our little KOLIBRI.aero to become a sustainable airline. Beyond lip-services or greenwashing, the real deal. Based on the idea to use SynFuel, doing the maths in seriousness, I identified The Energy Dilemma!
And this ain’t only about aviation, IT is currently having a higher energy demand than aviation, but in their case it contributes to global warming, where we look at how to make aviation sustainable.
The Energy Dilemma
Having worked on the issue of SynFuel since 2019, all those experts have never bothered to mention the energy needed to create it. Reaching out, a Fraunhofer-contact referred me to an old 2015 statement by Sunfire (the German SynFuel-pioneers), qualifying the energy needed for 1 liter or Synfuel with 15.3 kWh. Okay… But if we talk about one basic airline base for Kolibri with seven aircraft, we talk about 40 million liters of kerosene to be replaced? 15.3 kWh x 40 000 000 liters of kerosene = 612 000 000 kWh = 612 000 MWh = 612 GWh. That is Gigawatt-hours.
Now in 2016, the entire country of Albania used 7 000 GWh/a (annual). 612 GWh/a reflects such 8.5% of the Albanian energy. Or 28% of that of Malta (should we want to do a base there). And increasing. And that’d be only us.
I already learned that the datacenters in Frankfurt use 20% of the energy in the entire city, a staggering 1.3 TWh/a, that is 1 300 GWh/a. Double of what we need for a base. Currently more than the Frankfurt Airport uses. But beyond the data centers, all the new IT requires more electric energy, be it TVs, smartphones, laptops, tablets, you name it.
Now thinking on SynFuel, I also got referred to cargo and cruise ships. If you want to create enough SynFuel (or hydrogen, or …) for those, we likely talk about multiple the electric capacity needed to supply them with fuel.
For the large harbors, don’t bother about the energy hunger of data centers… They have other problems. [Added 24May21]
How to Get Your Energy
Now there are two options.
- Either you take your energy off the grid. Not bothering about sustainability except by making your contracts demanding green energy. But that is greenwashing. In Germany, we have a joke dating back to the 80’s (~30 years): What about Nuclear Power? I get my power from the plug.
Aside, it replaces one unreliable supplier to power our aircraft with another one.
- Or you develop your own energy source. But that will require political support, setting up the solar parks, wind turbines (on- and off-shore), water-power-plants, etc.
Our idea has been (and still is) a local energy farming, avoiding long transport lines.
Green Energy Sources
Solar / Photovoltaic
But given a typical modern solar panel, we talk about 200 kWh/a. To produce 600 GWh/a, that would require a solar farm of a staggering 3 million m² or fields the size of 3 000 x 1 000 meters. Given the hunger of sustainability on the one side and IT on the other, I doubt that is a viable option any more! Sure, every bit helps and putting solar on roofs to lower the overall demand is a good thing. But industrially, it’s a drop on a hot stone.
water turbines require facilities having their own impact on the local ecology and are usually not available nearby airports. Whereas Albania’s largest water power facility has a capacity of 600 MW. Which is always misleading, it produces about 1 328 GWh/a. More than enough, but can we simply take away that power?
A 5 MW facility generates in reality approximately 10 million kWh/a or 2 GWh/a per MW (Source). Typical wind turbines today have a size of 3 MW. As such, to generate the needed 600 GWh, we would need approximately 300 wind turbines.
Now I keep falling back to my post about the butterfly effect.
Offshore Wind Parks
I had intentionally not looked at the on- vs. offshore installation of wind-turbines, as the advantages somewhat offset each other. While on-shore can be established in the vicinity of the where the power is being used, it comes with a lower power-generation (2 000 full-load hours). Off-shore comes with added cost for the foundation/set-up and for the transfer of the power to the shore/inland, but is more effective. Sources claim some 100% higher energy generation on comparable wind turbines.
Posting this article, I got approached by CYKLONE Tidal Energy, a startup targeting water instead of wind turbines. With a strong business case for off-shore use, alike offshore wind parks they come with the necessity to transfer the power to shore/inland. It will make far more sense to connect it to the public grid to power other needs than to use it exclusively for our needs.
That said, for me it is rather “natural” to add such water turbines inside the wind parks. It is “traffic restricted area” anyway!
Generally it makes most sense to connect that energy source to the public grid.
Waste to Energy
A typical (large) waste incineration plant (burning waste for energy) like in the city of Würzburg creates about 70 million kWh. So we would need about 9 of such plants just for the SynKerosene demands we have. Aside, they produce 60 million kWh of heat, with it’s own repercussions. I put that under wishful thinking.
There are two types of geothermal energy uses that became common. The classic one is to dig deep, several kilometers into the planet’s crust. In that depth, the soil is like 150°C warmer than on the surface (the Earth core is molten). Water is injected, the hot water pumped back. That includes the new developments called enhanced geothermal system (EGS). Geothermal Energy has the risk to induce seismic activity (a.k.a. earth quakes), but geologists consider it a safe technology.
The new one is used a lot on new houses built is Near-Surface Geothermal Energy, though this has limited ability and is a more small-scale use case (as of now).
Other Green Energy Sources
Have I overseen anything? Those are the green energy sources that I am aware of. This is Food for Thought, sharing your ideas is welcome!
Reducing the Energy Demand
Another approach is to think about how to reduce the energy demand. A high amount of the energy is needed to refine the hydrogen from water (electrolysis). But it again would be greenwashing, if we’d simply ignore that part. So we must think about other sources. And there are two, we look at.
Methane (CH4) is a climate killer gas but contains the hydrogen we need to refine synfuel. Instead of using water, we could use Methane, and you could use residual heat (not electric energy) from other processes to power the process. Where you create hydrogen and carbon, using water (H2O) in the process, the carbon usually is oxidized to the CO2 needed for the synfuel. Though there’ve been startups coming with the idea to create industry diamonds. But aside the general concept and academic research, I have not been able yet to get figures with impact to creating the realistic business case. As this is Food for Though, it’s also work in progress. And I am happy to get any input on where to find hard numbers to quantify this for a sound business case.
I use that word Chemcycling being now often used for the waste-to-hydrogen. In general this boils down to what this example video by World Economic Forum addresses.
The combined generation of energy (electricity!), heat, hydrogen from waste. While I also fail to have hard input to make the business case (yet), the developers of those solutions do emphasize that this is a cash cow. As a matter of fact, SynFuel is created as a “side product” in their overall vision, where for us it sure would be a primary.
I happen to also like the ROK Venture video, as it shows a side effect in the end, whereas distracting the attention from SynFuel to farming. With vertical farming being another issue I look at as a sustainability need to feed the increasing population… But as Michael Ende said in his Neverending Story: This is another story and shall be told another time.
In a mail by the FfE (German Research Institute for the Energy Industry) on May 25th, 2021 I got the following feedback (translated from German):
In my personal opinion, this is a prime example for ignorance, lip services and greenwashing!
It confirms my understanding, that our political elite, but also our mighty researchers have no answer to respond to the energy needed to reach their mighty goals for 2035, not even for 2050. Else they would invest big scale into green energy. Not just wind or solar. All of it. And it’s why they compare climate-impact to 1990 instead of addressing real climate-neutrality.
The Need to Think Outside the Box
Given a demand of 600 GWh/a, increasing when we grow the base(s), it became utterly clear to me, that there is not “the” solution. No easy one.
The Commitment Stands: Flying Carbon-Neutral This Decade
It will require thinking outside the box. We will need to look into “the grid” initially, but also into a mix of solar, wind, chemcycling, methane. One very clear target is the need to reduce the energy consumption to create SynFuels. I believe (IMHO) that ChemCycling is the most promising technology. But how big a facility would be needed to provide for 600 million (or more) of SynKerosene?
But I also stand to my other opinion: We got to get this started. And we won’t start if we wait for the dinosaurs and greenwashers. We got to get going with Kolibri and we need the real impact investors, politicians and their financial means (EIB, EBRD, etc.) to get going. No more lip-services and then claiming an improved sustainability for aircraft by 2035 on dreamworlds like liquid-hydrogen aircraft fleets (that won’t be there by the time), electric flying or other wishful thinking.
The RoadMap to a Carbon-Neutral Airline This Decade
To turn an airline truly carbon-neutral, we have an idea on the journey. Starting with a smaller SynFuel facility as part of our initial startup to power not only emergency power (generators), but also ground transportation and use it as the needed buffer-technology for 24/7 electrical output, using our own smaller solar park.
In a second step, I assume we will secure the funding for the flight academy, where we will be able to provide the lower amount of SynFuel needed for the training aircraft and a small supply for the kerosene needed for the type-rating aircraft. Which can then be also used for the testing and certification of the operation with 100% unblended SynKerosene.
Should we not be able to finance our flight academy with the own envisioned airport, we would likely need to allocate an additional aircraft or one of the spare aircraft to the testing and certification.
Based on the experience from our first SynFuel-facilities, the certification and testing for the fleet aircraft, we will develop the SynKerosene facilities and secure the availability of grid-power for the remaining electricity-needs. Likely qualifying and making the business case for ChemCycle-facilities, mixed with solar and wind parks. And establish them.
From Blue and Gray to Green
Digging into the Sustainability-Energy Challenge, it got now clear, that establishing the technology, the facilities for SynFuel more or less are a no-brainer. But the energy-challenge will require a two-staged process.
Step 1 being the SynFuel-facilities, using as much green energy as possible but complementing it with “dirty” energy. There is even a word for that, being “blue SynFuel” for the one from “dirty energy” or “green SynFuel” from renewable energy…
Step 2 will be the real challenge. To set up the facilities and (external) sources for affordable green energy supporting our plans.
|2021||Funding Kolibri Launch (€60m)|
|2022||Kolibris taking flight
Business case + Funding Flight Academy, Airport, SynFuel Facility
|2023/24||Certification 100% unblended SynFuel for commercial use|
|2025||Funding SynFuel Facilities + Green Power Facilities* at first bases|
|2027||Entire fleet SynFuel operated|
|2030||All initial bases converted to Green SynFuel. [Added 31May]|
This is sure an optimum case scenario. But given the engine-maker’s interest and support in the certification process it’s mainly having the SynFuel in the required quality and quantity for testing, an aircraft body dedicated to SynFuel-usage and the bureaucratic process. The bureaucracy can be time-consuming, but given our assumption to secure European political (and financial) support, an estimate of a year to establish the facilities and another for testing and certification are realistic.
Sustainable Aviation Kolibri-Style
This week, a potentially interested investor “interrogated” me about “instant sustainability”. Those SynFuel-plans being “just” plans and only coming up with further investments.
So just to make this clear: Our plans touch all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Not just by “creative interpretation” as most impact investments, but because we considered them something vital to our understanding of making better aviation.
Examples are our plans to instantly establish Synfuel-facilities, combined with photovoltaic at our HQ and possibly at the bases, to provide for necessary vehicles (airport handling, local transport), emergency power backup and also as an energy buffer for the photovoltaic power. We will also need power at nights, right? From which we gain experience to expand into SynKerosene.
But also that we establish our HQ in the European “poor house” Albania, offering hundreds of qualified jobs, training, etc. with decent salaries. Planning a female chief pilot as just one example on how we want to push gender equality. And far more, though those are details exceeding the scope of this article. Detail we share in a due diligence. But our commitment is not just to turn aviation carbon-neutral. Our commitment is about doing the right thing. [Added 31May, Image: Skywest]
Target: At 10 years into operation, we will need to convert to SynFuel from using 1 billion liters of fossil or blended “bio” kerosene. At 2 555 tons per million liters (source), we talk about 2.5 million tons CO2 savings per year and increasing. [Added 04Jun]
Call for (Real Impact) Investors
So my call is for impact investors and others who want to do a real change, to help us make the Kolibris fly. Investing now. No, it is no “quick and dirty”, but we are committed to the journey. Based on the initial launch, we understand and commit to the need to turn the fleet carbon-neutral. This decade. But to even ideate this we will need the airline that we want to turn carbon-neutral. And given the input and disinterest in my industry, in aviation (Lufthansa just being a sorry example), in the investing into that need, we need a new breed of airline(s). One that embraces that need. As well as investors that understand that this will be disruptive, it will be the future.
Jürgen Barthel, May 20210 - click to show Jürgen you liked the post