AINsight: In Search of a Sustainable Future

 - August 21, 2020, 11:17 AM

Deep in the heart of the northern summer heat, many business aviation professionals have been taking at least a few days away from the rigors of work to invest in some much-appreciated rest and relaxation with family and friends, in preparation for what looks to be an active year-end. Whether digging their toes into the baby powder sands, listening to the soothing sounds of summer waves lapping on the side of the boat, or appreciating the majestic mountain vistas, it is a time for reflection and rejuvenation.

The late summer skies are naturally convective, with the forces of nature occasionally unleashed to remind us all that there are some bigger things going on that impact our lives. With the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to unleash its deadly force, the resultant slowdowns in societal and economic activities have slammed some industries much more than others, with commercial air travel being amongst the hardest hit. With business aviation in the rather unusual position of doing relatively well through this business cycle—with a shallower dip and a faster resurgence in-flight operations than commercial aviation so far this year—the stage seems to be set for a decent second half of the year against a backdrop of reset costs and lowered expectations for product and service sales.

The newly released 2nd edition of Fueling the Future: Sustainable Aviation Fuel Guide, a guidebook on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), just arrived in my inbox, a timely reminder of steady progress on the environmental front and a reminder of challenges and opportunities facing business aviation in the years ahead.

Covid-19 is absorbing much of management’s attention in our industry, and this is rightfully so, but we must have the capacity and we must carve out the time and energy to focus on other priorities that also demand attention. While new propulsion systems and energy alternatives (most notably, electric- and hydrogen-based) are likely to become vital contributors to our more sustainable lifestyles, the technology roadmaps to get us to these greener pastures and bluer skies are still being imagined, let alone executed.

While commercial and business aviation is amongst the most visible adopters in our societies of new technologies, we would all do well to embrace solutions that, much like the subtle adjustments required for in-flight course correction and navigational realignment, serve us well in the interim period.

“I want my SAF” may not quite have the ringing appeal of some other slogans in today’s noisy marketplace but it does succinctly describe at least half of the problem. Much like consumer interest in more energy-efficient automobiles and homes, demand for alternative aviation fuels has been accelerating, with a cadre of early-adopter organizations showing the way forward. While some organizations cannot or will not yet be able to justify the into-plane cost differential that comes at this time with SAF, the economics of fuel supply—from feedstock to fuel tank—are improving every day, and the environmental benefits for users are immediate.

Charles Etter, a longtime advocate for sustainable aviation fuel and Gulfstream Aerospace’s head of environmental and regulatory affairs, challenged participants at an AIN-sponsored NBAA-BACE 2019 luncheon session on SAF to recognize that demonstrating leadership is not about expecting fuel discounts at this still-early stage of adoption. As supply pathways multiply, the economics of SAF will improve significantly, supported by far-sighted public policy initiatives to encourage production.

Underutilized or even shuttered refineries are amongst the likely candidates for SAF production, including those in jurisdictions that have shown themselves to be more environmentally conscious and active than others.

The announcement that Phillips 66 plans to convert its San Francisco crude oil refinery to produce renewable fuels (including SAF) with cooking oil, fats, greases, soybean, and other vegetable oils for the California market was a much welcome development. If approved by local and state officials, the “Rodeo Renewed” fuel plant could be the world’s largest of its kind, operational by 2024 with the annual capacity to produce ~800 million U.S. gallons of renewable fuel (including diesel, gasoline, and SAF).

While such a facility won’t begin to solve the SAF supply shortfall for several years to come, the timing coincides with an expected traffic recovery for commercial airlines, with airlines and airports in California amongst the earliest SAF volume adopters.

World Energy’s Paramount, California refinery is another converted facility that was a U.S. pioneer in SAF production. Van Nuys Airport, always amongst the vanguards of business and general aviation trends, hosted a SAF demonstration event in January 2019, in advance of a similar event at London’s Farnborough Airport and EBACE 2019’s SAF “Fly-in” in May 2019, with 23 aircraft arriving at Geneva Airport.

Described by GAMA CEO Pete Bunce as “jet-A in every way,” SAF is an ASTM-approved drop-in replacement that is cleaner than jet-A while meeting all technical specifications and requirements. David Coleal, president of Bombardier Aviation and GAMA’s Environmental Committee chair, has worked tirelessly to promote SAF as safe, clean, and available, noting perhaps most importantly that “the plane doesn’t know the difference.”

Thankfully, many of the customers who own, operate, and sit in the back of business aircraft, and FBOs that pump much of our industry’s fuel into aircraft, are taking the time to educate themselves on SAF and to participate in a quiet revolution that will ultimately help to transform business aviation’s controllable carbon footprint. Fueling the Future: Sustainable Aviation Fuel Guide arrives just in time, like a business aircraft, as a valuable resource for those wanting to know more and to participate in this important progress.

Rolland “Rollie” Vincent is president of Rolland Vincent Associates, a Plano, Texas-based aviation consultancy with a focus on market research, strategy, and forecasting. He can be reached by email or telephone at (972) 439-2069.