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Advancing renewable transport fuels

If there is one positive side-effect of the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to remark on, then it would be its reduction effect on global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – simply a result of emitting sources, primarily from manufacturing industry and transportation, shutting down or scaling back. With lockdowns, travel restrictions, staycations, and work-from-home recommendations, demand for air travel, in particular, had all but evaporated during the first half of 2020.

The impact of COVID-19 on global civil aviation and jet fuel consumption H1/2020 (graphic courtesy EIA).

According to figures from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), global commercial aviation flights averaged over 70 000 per day in January and February 2020 consuming an average of 4.3 million barrels-per-day (bd) of jet fuel. By end of April, at the height of the initial pandemic containment efforts, the average was 25 000 flights per day using 1 million bd.

Demand has since inched up to around 45 000 flights per day in July and 1.6 million bd fuel consumption. While other modes of transport have contracted too, it is aviation that has been the hardest hit – comparing aviation’s fuel demand in July this year with July 2019 shows a 69 percent drop.

Charts on global crude oil demand and prices for the same period are even more dramatic. From US$70.87/b for OPEC basket on January 6 to -US$37.63/b (!) for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) on April 20, the lowest negative crude oil price ever recorded. Weekly average prices have since stabilized for all three categories (OPEC, Brent & WTI) to around US$40/b.

The immediate ramifications for oil refiners coupled with the distillation curve challenge (i.e. refining one unit of crude oil results in a constant given fraction of distillate groups) and the long-term outlook for crude oil have prompted some very recent and pretty significant shifts.

In the United States (US), Phillips 66 revealed plans to reconfigure its San Francisco Refinery in Rodeo, California (CA), to produce renewable fuels only. If fully implemented and combined with the existing renewable fuel project, the “Rodeo Renewed” would be able to produce over 800 million gallons (≈ 3.02 billion litres) annually of renewable diesel, renewable gasoline, and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), making it the world’s largest…

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