We can have a Green New Deal, and air travel too

 

Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOmar controversy looms over AIPAC conference Senate gears up for Green New Deal vote Overnight Energy: Green New Deal vote set to test Dem unity | Renewables on track to phase out coal, study finds | EPA chief reportedly recuses himself from mine review MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySenate gears up for Green New Deal vote Overnight Energy: Green New Deal vote set to test Dem unity | Renewables on track to phase out coal, study finds | EPA chief reportedly recuses himself from mine review Green New Deal vote tests Dem unity in Senate MORE (D-Mass.) introduced their resolution laying out the principles and rationale for a Green New Deal. As I’ve argued before, this is an overdue step to reorient our economy away from mining our children’s wealth and towards delivering true economic prosperity across the country.

Unsurprisingly, the same opponents who have fought change for the last 30 years seized on some communication missteps within a convoluted FAQ; once again, trying to characterize the transition away from wealth-destroying fossil fuels as the end of the world. Unfortunately, that has left us with a silly argument that the left wants to eliminate air travel.

As someone who’s been working on climate-friendly technologies for almost two decades, as committee staff in Congress and later in the major clean energy R&D program of the Department of Energy (DOE), I can say it’s entirely possible for airplanes to fly without fossil fuels. In fact, we can make a carbon-neutral transportation system that not only protects our future but makes our lives better today.

Obviously, the Green New Deal resolution itself does not ban air travel. What it does is tip to many of the policies that are key to repairing our creaky transportation system. Yes, we can save a lot of time, extra flight miles and congestion by replacing short trips between hub cities like Boston and New York with electrified high-speed rail.

In fact, I suspect this was actually what one of the garbled FAQs about “eliminating stops” was aimed at. Not only does this eliminate emissions from a lot of inefficient flights (takeoffs are particularly energy intensive), but it speeds up air travel across the board, as well as potentially restoring regular service to now underserved cities that have lost out in recent years.

It’s also possible to improve shorter, specialty flights, such as to small regional airports, with hybrid electric planes. But batteries have to get much cheaper and much, much lighter before that will be more than a niche solution. The fact is, the energy density of liquid fuels is very difficult to match, which leads us to the most important and likeliest way to decarbonize aviation: Jet fuels derived from biomass.

The idea for renewable jet fuel has been an active area of research for the DOE. Last year yielded some of the most promising results so far, as DOE research partner LanzaTech provided their ethanol-derived jet fuel for a 747 test flight across the Atlantic. This fuel starts from ethanol, which can come from waste industrial gas or from carbon-removing biomass, which is then converted into a drop-in jet fuel. 

Their cleaner burning fuel is currently certified to be blended up to 50 percent with existing jet fuel and can dramatically cut fossil carbon emissions in today’s aircraft without any further advances. But, there’s no technological barrier to getting to 100 percent. We already produce 15 billion gallons of ethanol in the United States, so with a committed research and policy push (unfortunately happening much more in Europe than in the U.S. at the moment) it is easy to see how we can keep our current aviation system without adding any more fossil carbon to the atmosphere.

This, and the related technologies for renewable fuel replacements for long-haul trucking and international shipping, were all shown as viable in a multi-lab study from DOE a few years ago. In their scenarios, renewable biofuels played an enormous role providing fuels beyond consumer vehicles — making our farmers key players in restoring our natural wealth while cleaning and protecting our air. Thus, delivering the inclusive prosperity — with a big role for rural America — demanded by the Green New Deal and voters.

LanzaTech and others see the technology roadmap ahead. The question we need to ask ourselves is if we want them to do this work in the U.S. or let it move overseas where people are more seriously committed. In the end, this is what a Green New Deal is actually about. It’s about America doing what we all like to think it has always done — facing up to a real threat and leading the charge to address it. We have the technology, we just need the politicians to roll up their sleeves and get busy.

Like FDR’s New Deal, the Green New Deal is not policy, or even a collection of policies, it’s a commitment to sustained action and a framework for making sure the benefits of the clean energy transition come to every corner of the Country. No mangled FAQs or misspoken summaries will change this basic premise — because the alternative, continuing to let fossil fuel barons feather their nests with wealth stolen from our children — is unacceptable.

Mike Carr is executive director of New Energy America. He previously served as principal deputy assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and as senior counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.