With severe reductions in aviation traffic due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all sectors of the industry have felt an effect, among them fuel providers such as Air bp. The UK-based company has been very active in the push for the adoption of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), with its parent BP Group committing back in February to becoming a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050 or sooner. That goal aligns with the aviation industry’s greater aspirations, adopted in 2009, to achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020, and in the long-term halving net CO2 emissions from the sector by 2050 compares with 2005 levels.
“There will be some slowdown in aviation traffic over the next few years compared to where it would have otherwise been, but that trend is still very clear that aviation will continue to grow over that long-term picture, while also needing to reduce its CO2 emissions substantially,” said Tom Parsons, Air bp’s commercial development manager for biojet. While he feels that electric and hydrogen propulsion will certainly play a role in aviation’s future, he believes that they will be limited in the near term to short-range aircraft. “Anything that is a commercial airline and long-haul needs kerosene and therefore needs SAF.”
Sustainable fuels derive their environmental benefits not from their actual burning, in which the carbon emissions are nearly indistinguishable to conventional jet fuels, but from their production life cycle. "SAF typically saves up to 80 percent of the CO2 over the lifecycle, so what that means is it's using feedstocks that either have taken CO2 out of the atmosphere or that are already wastes within the system," explained Parsons. "You turn that back into useful fuel and thereby avoid the additional production of crude oil, which is taking stored carbon out of the ground and adding to the net atmospheric CO2."
The industry has gathered momentum as volumes of renewable fuel increase with the approval of new production pathways. Championed by California-based Fulcrum BioEnergy, the most recent involves the use of a synthetic crude oil derived from municipal waste, which can be co-processed with petroleum at the refinery level.
This latest approval moves the inclusion of SAF further upstream in the process and will allow any standard petroleum refinery to use the synthetic crude oil along with regular crude oil. Most previous alternative jet fuel processes involved blending a refined SAF with conventional Jet-A at the refinery gate.
Back in 2016, the two companies signed an agreement giving BP a $30 million equity investment in Fulcrum, which expects to bring its first major production plant online this year outside of Reno, Nevada. The two companies also agreed to terms on a 500 million gallon jet fuel offtake agreement that will provide Air bp with 50 million gallons per year of low-carbon, drop-in jet fuel. This is in addition to bp’s long-standing partnership with European SAF provider Neste, and Parsons noted there are other agreements in the works, both on the procurement and the customer supply sides.
But such plans, at least in the short term, might suffer from the effects of Covid. “We’re in that phase of moving from occasional one-offs into more continuous supply and I think in commercial aviation we’ve probably had to defer activities by three or four months,” Parsons explained, adding that “so far this year has been quite a different six months to what we or anybody was really expecting."
“I think we were coming into 2020 with really encouraging momentum, and a lot of interest in sustainable aviation fuel from both commercial airlines and general aviation customers," he explained. But with the pandemic has come a slowdown in operations and, for many customers, a possible “reset” in their thinking.
Yet, unlike in the aftermath of the global economic meltdown more than a decade ago, where some companies shied away from sustainable activities, Parsons told AIN he believes this crisis is different. “We have been encouraged by many of those conversations continuing through this challenging period,” he said. “I do think sustainability will become a more important part of the agenda for the majority of airlines and operators as a result of this sort of reset.”
As an example, Parsons cited the government bailouts offered to airlines such as Air France and SAS, which are being overtly linked to furthering carbon emissions reduction. Aside from those financial incentives, he noted that public pressure might also play a role. “Whether our bailouts are not directly linked to low carbon, we’ll still expect to see a greater expectation within the public sentiment that there is real progress on this,” he said.
Even as the effect of the pandemic continues to be felt, there is evidence from the SAF producers that their efforts to increase the supply of SAF continue unabated. “If anything, there have been more new announcements than ever for new production options over the last six months,” said Parsons.