With production of sustainable aviation fuel continuing to rise, global fuel distributor Avfuel predicts that by 2030 as much as 20 percent of the jet fuel consumed in North America could have an SAF component, according to Keith Sawyer, the company’s manager of alternative fuels.
Speaking on October 15 during AIN’s Making Business Aviation Environmentally Sustainable webinar, he noted that since the introduction of SAF there has already been more than a quarter-million flights using a component of SAF in blends ranging from 5 percent to 100 percent. He pointed out that there are currently seven approved pathways for SAF production, using varied feedstocks ranging from wood waste to municipal waste, purpose-grown crops, and used oils and residues.
Mark Masluch, Bombardier Aviation's director of communications and public affairs and a member of GAMA's environmental committee, told webinar moderator and AIN senior editor Charles Alcock that the fuel’s safety was initially a major concern among operators. “I think the most important point is that SAF is drop-in ready,” he said. “The aircraft doesn’t know the difference chemically from regular fuels.” To drive home that point, Bombardier, along with other bizav airframers and engine OEMs banded together behind GAMA and the other members of the SAF coalition—NBAA, EBAA, IBAC, NATA, and CAAFI—to produce an information guide to the use of SAF, the second edition of which was recently released.
"The infrastructure is really going to be very important in how the supply chain for SAF is integrated into the typical jet fuel supply infrastructure that we have in the aviation business," said Sawyer. "Typically we've got from refineries, to storage, to the aircraft. Now we need production of SAF, we need blending, we need certification and then recertification to jet fuel, those are another complex element in the supply chain that we are endeavouring to make sure is in place."
While states such as California and Oregon have pioneered policies in the U.S. that encourage and incentivize the production, distribution, and adoption of sustainable fuels and some countries in Europe are enacting mandates on levels of SAF usage, Masluch believes such legislation must become more widespread and more coordinated. “Like many policy matters that impact aviation, standardization is really the key aspect, so to be able to fly from one jurisdiction to another and be able to receive the same benefits for the use of SAF from an operator perspective or from a manufacturer perspective, who are using SAF in repositioning aircraft, it's important that it be unified among jurisdictions.” Such standards would also apply to help encourage local production of SAF in order to reduce CO2 created by transporting the SAF from its point of production in areas that are perhaps more stimulated economically than others.
For those who wish to use SAF, even in areas where it is not yet available, they can do so through developing programs such as book-and-claim. As Sawyer explained, an operator who decides to purchase SAF in New York for example, would therefore create an obligation for that amount of fuel, which a distributor such as Avfuel would then release into the system. The operator who purchased the fuel would receive the environmental credit, while the fuel would then be dispensed to an FBO near where the SAF was produced, where it would be pumped into an aircraft. The environment would receive the same overall level of carbon reduction even if the actual molecules weren't burned in their aircraft. "It saves them the transportation from the California manufacturing facility," Sawyer noted. "You would get the "California economics" for the product without having to transport it and then ultimately retard some of the [carbon emissions] savings in the lifecycle that have been incurred through the manufacturing of the SAF."
Even with the book-and-claim process, a hurdle faced by SAF is it is currently more expensive than conventional jet fuel, and its availability is still largely confined to those areas that offer incentives. "The key component though, notwithstanding the price delta of let's say $1 to $1.50 per gallon against current refined jet prices on the West Coast, is that it may be more expensive but when you consider the value that the use of SAF by a corporation within its environmental safety and governance scoring is going to be very important," Sawyer said.
“I also think that a balanced regulatory environment is going to go a long way to helping move the price of SAF to parity with jet fuel,” he continued. “Ultimately, we don't think it will ever get quite to parity, but we've already seen the gap narrow in the past couple of years through the increased availability and we forecast even closer parity as more and more and more production comes online.”
Masluch is also encouraged by the recent spate of announced SAF offtake agreements. “It’s hopefully becoming a more global phenomenon as we move into next year.”
With even more environmentally friendly propulsion technologies such as electricity and hydrogen on the horizon, some wonder if the growing SAF industry will be little more than a stop-gap measure. “When you get down to the reality of production and propulsion of these platforms, it’s a question of when can the energy density match the requirements," explained Masluch, citing what would be needed to move a large cabin, ultra-long-range aircraft such as his company’s flagship Global 7500 around the world.
"The batteries required to do that today don't exist,” he said, adding that while work is being done currently to electrify smaller aircraft and short-range eVTOLs, electric and hydrogen propulsion systems required for larger, longer-range aircraft are likely in the 20- to 25-year development cycle. While the manufacturer is certainly looking ahead to the maturation of such technologies, at the same time it has to fill practically an entire generation worth of carbon reduction before it reaches that point. “We have to think about what is happening today, tomorrow, and in the next five years," said Masluch.
Sustainability extends past the use of SAF, even encompassing the life cycle of the aircraft themselves. OEMs such as Bombardier have begun creating environmental product declarations (EPD) for their aircraft. “The EPD actually measures what it takes to go from raw material to built product, measures the lifecycle CO2 emissions for that product, and then what it takes to recycle that product,” said Masluch. “Something that is very clearly listed in terms of how to tear down the aircraft and what parts of the metals are indeed recyclable. More and more we are looking at our product design in that light.”
Ultimately, stated Alcock, “Anyone in this industry who wants to remain viable for the long-term clearly needs to be engaged with the technology, the supply chain, and the business models that will be needed to safeguard the industry's environmental sustainability.”