Environmental sustainability is among the stated goals of the aviation industry, which is one of the few industries to have developed internationally agreed-upon carbon-emission-reduction standards for both equipment and operators. In 2009, the business aviation community, through its representative organizations, announced three goals to mitigate its effect on climate change: achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020; improve fuel efficiency by 2 percent per year from 2010 to 2020; and reduce CO2 emissions by 50 percent by 2050 relative to 2005.
The industry described four pillars it believed will help it reach those targets: technology improvements in airframes and engine efficiency; the modernization of air traffic control; operational changes, such as adopting single-engine taxiing and streamlined flight planning; and the use of renewable fuels.
According to the Business Aviation Guide to the Use of Sustainable Alternative Jet Fuel, which was released by an industry coalition including GAMA, NATA, NBAA, EBAA, and IBAC, the single-largest potential reduction in aviation’s greenhouse emissions will result from broad adoption of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in place of the current fossil-based jet-A.
To demonstrate the drop-in compatibility of the renewable fuel, several high-profile events at places such as California’s Van Nuys Airport, the UK’s Farnborough Airport, and Zurich Airport in Switzerland were held over the past year, allowing operators to learn more about SAF.
Since then, the Covid-19 pandemic and its chilling effect on passenger transport has created hurdles for the industry.
While production of SAF has slowly increased, the price differential between it and conventional jet-A remains a primary constraint, according to Steve Csonka, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). “The price of SAF is today not competitive with petroleum jet [fuel]," he noted. "I could say that a couple of months ago when oil was sitting at $60 to $70 a barrel, and you’ve seen what has happened in the last couple of days with the price of oil, which just completely exacerbates the issue.”
The cost of a gallon of blended SAF depends on many factors. “We are now up to seven production processes," said Csonka, "and each of those has a different price point that is baked into the operating economics, driven by the capital expense of the facility and the vagaries of the feedstock that you’re using in that facility." Csonka added that such calculations are conducted between producers and distributors or end-users at the time the offtake agreement is consummated.
Major airlines—particularly United Airlines—have signed long-term purchase agreements, taking advantage of tax and environmental credits, for millions of gallons of SAF that is mixed into general storage tanks at Los Angeles International Airport for use by any aircraft that refuel there. For business aviation, a similar process known as “book and claim” allows operators at airports where renewable fuel isn't available to pay for it where it actually is and claim its environmental benefits; the fuel is then dispensed at an airport located close to an SAF producer, limiting the environmental effects of having to transport it. The net effects are the same whether the fuel is used on one side of the country or the other.
One misconception about SAF is that its main environmental benefits stem from its use in aircraft. While the SAF fuels do not contain sulphur—which is released into the atmosphere in the form of sulphur oxides, a component of acid rain—“what’s lost on a lot of people is that the actual amount of CO2 coming out of the tailpipe is nearly identical to the amount of CO2 that comes out of the tailpipe for a plane flying on petroleum-based jet fuel,” explained Csonka. He added that the difference lies in the benefits inherent in the production of each, which could potentially result in CO2 emission reductions of more than 100 percent over the life cycle of the fuel. “Fundamentally, this is what we’re talking about. Instead of continuing to pull carbon molecules out of the ground, burning them, and turning them into additional CO2 in our atmosphere, what we’re trying to do is pull carbon molecules out of our biosphere from different plant matters and recycle those carbon molecules so that in the long run we abate or even potentially reduce the amount of carbon that we’re exposed to in our biosphere.”
According to Csonka, it is too early to predict what effect the Covid-19 crisis and its knock-on impacts on civil aviation and oil prices will have in the long term for the SAF industry. “What I’m most concerned about now is how the airlines come out of this crisis in general,” he told AIN. “What I do know is that ever since we have been involved in this effort, going back to 2006, we have known this is a long-run approach for the entire aviation enterprise, so I don’t think the commitment has wavered whatsoever.”
With the prospect of further economic relief currently being drafted in Congress, Csonka believes, based on questions his organization has fielded from legislators, that there could be some future stimulus or incentives for the use of sustainable fuels, along with proposed tax credits.
After four years of sustained commercial use of SAF, CAAFI’s industry assessment called for renewable jet fuel production to increase from 36 million gallons per year (GPY) to 43 million GPY in 2020 and to nearly 10 times the latter figure by 2022, with the anticipated opening of a major production facility in Asia; the figure would double again, to more than 800 million gallons, by 2024 as more facilities come online and others are expanded.
While the global economic downturn in 2008 caused a severe hurdle for the alternative-fuel industry, crippling capital markets needed to fund the development of production facilities, Csonka doesn’t expect the same impact and instead sees some of those production targets possibly sliding to the right based on construction delays or reduced short-term demand. As production increases, he sees more opportunities for SAF from cargo carriers, which have not been badly affected by the Covid-19 crisis, as well as more availability for business aviation use.
"We've got changes to surmount, but quite frankly from my initial involvement in 2006, there have never not been those challenges hanging out there," said Csonka, "but we continue to do all the foundational work to try to make this succeed in the long term."
He noted that the production process for renewable diesel is similar to that for SAF, requiring only simple changes at the facility to convert from one to another. Renewable diesel has typically produced slightly higher profits than SAF, Csonka noted, but should jet fuel demand and prices rebound, the current 390 million GPY renewable diesel production capacity could be used.