Aviation’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 will require the adoption of a range of technological advances. But perhaps the most readily attainable—sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)—has already advanced to the point of commercial application, demonstrating its ability to safely power turbofan engines on a 50-50 blend of SAF to conventional jet fuel.
While companies such as Airbus consider hydrogen power the “holy grail” in the quest for net-zero carbon emissions, even optimistic projections suggest its practical application in a narrowbody airliner will happen no sooner than 2035. Conversely, increased production and consumption of SAF offers the potential for immediate and sustained reduction of CO2 without the need for investing in new aircraft, new engines, costly engine technology maturation programs, or major infrastructure projects.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, centers on the scalability and availability of SAF. In 2019, SAF accounted for some 0.01 percent of all fuel used by the aviation industry. Reaching the point at which operators can cost-effectively use it in large enough quantities will take more than good intentions. Government intervention and partnerships among airlines, airports, producers, and blenders will prove critical, according to Airlines for America (A4A) vice president for environmental affairs Nancy Young.
In the U.S., the government support element has lacked consistency, particularly given what environmentalists consider the hostile policy positions toward sustainable energy of the Trump Administration from 2017 to 2020. The incoming Biden Administration has implemented a far more aggressive sustainability policy, and Young pointed particularly to the so-called blenders tax credit for SAF as an important means to encourage enough use by airlines.
“The government needs to signal that there would be consistent policy support,” she said. “So, a multi-year—up to 10-year—SAF blender's tax credit, starting at a $1.50 a gallon for fuel that demonstrates a 50 percent lifecycle benefit [and] up to $2 for SAF that gets all the way to a 100 percent benefit…Because sustainable aviation fuel has not had the policy support ground-based alternative fuel has had, this will greatly help bridge that gap. And so we think that is probably the best near-term thing that can be done that would help us ramp up to meet really significant supply in the coming years. We were very pleased to see that.”
As its name suggests, a blenders tax credit goes to companies that blend the SAF with jet fuel, which, in turn, would lower overall transaction costs between producers and end-users. “It’s really a supply-chain benefit, as the producers are more inclined to produce it because it will be more saleable,” explained Young. “So the blenders are more inclined to be involved because they can address some of the cost challenges [associated] with it. And then users should benefit from the reduced cost of production and delivery of the fuel.”
Young also characterized the recently announced $61.4 million grant program from the Department of Energy for companies to help accelerate the development of lower-cost biofuels as “really significant” because it specifically includes SAF. Separately, A4A has asked for additional funding for the ASTM process for testing and demonstrating SAF. “It takes several years for a new fuel to get through that process, which is understandable because it has to be highly safe, and it’s an extremely expensive process to go through,” explained Young. “So to the extent you can get more research and development support for the ASTM process, that can help.”
With incentives for blenders and producers, costs for end-users such as airlines should also fall. SAF now costs between three and five times more than conventional jet fuel, which, of course, presents a major barrier to user uptake. Although A4A doesn’t in principle oppose future SAF blending mandates similar to those imposed on ground-based fuels, Young said any such requirement in the near term would prove premature. “We need some number of years to build up both the facilities that produce this, the supply chain that can move it into the blending process, and get it to the airport before you would have a mandate,” she said. “Otherwise, you’re just going to cripple it with cost [and] probably give a monopoly to a small handful of producers that are already there.”
Notwithstanding the lack of direct incentives to purchase SAF, several airlines in the U.S. have signaled a commitment to its use. United Airlines, for one, has promised to buy 3.4 million gallons of SAF this year under a partnership program with more than a dozen other companies called the EcoSkies Alliance. Inaugural participants, which represent a range of business sectors, include Siemens, Nike, Deloitte, and Takeda Pharmaceuticals. Young explained that the benefits to the companies reside with incentives tied to the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Protocol’s Scope 3 standard, which essentially provides a methodology to account for and report emissions from companies of all sectors. Released in 2011, the Scope 3 standard remains the only internationally accepted method for companies to account for indirect value-chain emissions.
Airlines, as the actual emitters of GHG through fuel burn, fall under the category known as Scope 1. “Increasingly, companies that are capable of providing climate finance to help reduce their own Scope 3 emissions by focusing on the Scope 1 emissions of their suppliers are doing that,” noted Young. “So it’s not really unique to aviation, but that’s the kind of benefit Microsoft would get when it did that kind of arrangement with Alaska Airlines, for example.”
While Young expressed confidence that aviation will meet its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, she cautioned that it will take a holistic approach that includes more than the increased production of SAF, but such technological advances as hydrogen power and electrification. “The members are committed,” she said. “What we don’t achieve in our industry, we would have to try to achieve through something like carbon capture and sequestration outside of our industry, which is something that United [Airlines] has just invested in.”
Last year, United became the first airline to commit to an investment in carbon capture and sequestration with a multimillion-dollar investment in 1PointFive, a joint venture by Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and Rusheen Capital that plans to build the first industrial-sized Direct Air Capture plant in the United States. The partners claim a single plant will capture and permanently sequester one million tonnes of CO2 each year, which equates to the work of 40 million trees.