Electric aircraft and alternative fuels: Rolls-Royce plots path to net-zero by 2050

Pictured: The all-electric plane used for Rolls-Royce's ACCEL demonstrator. Image: Rolls-Royce

Launched at a virtual media event this morning (17 June), the business’s new report on ‘Leading the Transition to Net-Zero Carbon’ outlines how it will decarbonise its own operations while shifting to only provide net-zero-compatible products and services to the transport, energy and built environment sectors.

With Scope 3 (indirect) emissions accounting for the majority of Rolls-Royce’s footprint – and in recognition of its position as a lever for systemic change across high-emitting industries – this latter focus takes up the bulk of the report, which states that the strategy is “not only compatible with, but actively enabling a net-zero future”.

There are overarching new commitments to only sell products that are net-zero-compatible by the end of the decade, which will require 75% of R&D funding to be spent on low-carbon technologies by 2025, rising to 100% from 2030. The present proportion is around 50%.

As a result of this investment, the lifetime emissions of new products and services sold to the power systems sector will need to be cut by 35% by 2030, as per new science-based targets. Technologies including microgrids and energy storage systems will be sold in greater quantities under the new plans, as will fuel cells that can provide clean power to industrial processes and heavy vehicles.

The report additionally confirms that Rolls-Royce’s ambition to install small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) across the UK is progressing to design approval, having gained buy-in under the Government’s Ten-Point Plan, meaning that multiple 470MW units will come online this decade.

For products sold to the transport sector, meanwhile, a headline commitment is to ensure that all jet engines supplied to civil and business aviation firms are ready to run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from 2023.

SAF can reduce life-cycle emissions by up to 70% compared to traditional jet fuel. However, most airlines currently only use it in small proportions in blends – partly due to a lack of supply and partly because current international regulations limit biofuel blends to 50%. Rolls-Royce’s report states that it is preparing for changes to legislation and technology in the near future, which will make SAF lower-carbon and increase supply.

Rolls-Royce also sees all-electric and hybrid-electric planes playing a key role in decarbonising aviation, which accounts for 3% of annual global emissions and, pandemic aside, has been rapidly growing. The firm will aim to break the world record speed for an all-electric plane during a flight of its ‘Spirit of Innovation’ aircraft, propelled by a 400kw electric powertrain next month.

In a move likely to create urgency around delivering the new 2023 milestones detailed in the roadmap, Rolls-Royce is linking progress to executive remuneration packages. A recent PwC analysis for the FTSE100 found that almost half are now linking executive pay packages to at least one environmental, social and/or governance (ESG) indicator.

“[Net-zero] is a societal imperative as well as one of the greatest commercial and technological opportunities of our time,” Rolls-Royce’s chief executive Warren East said.

“Our products and services are used in aviation, shipping and energy generation, where demand for power is increasing as the world’s population grows, becomes increasingly urbanised, more affluent and requires more electricity. These sectors are also among those where achieving net-zero carbon is hardest. As a result, our innovative technology has a fundamental role to play in enabling and even accelerating, the overall global transition to a net-zero carbon future.

“We believe that as the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic and looks to build back better, global economic growth can be compatible with a net-zero carbon future and that Rolls-Royce can help make that happen.”

The news from Rolls-Royce comes in the same week as the one-year anniversary of the Race to Zero initiative.

Designed to accelerate the adoption of net-zero targets and delivery plans in the run-up to COP26 – and to ensure that such plans are credible – the UNFCCC-led initiative now covers 4,500 organisations, collectively representing 10% of global annual emissions.

Sarah George

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