Noting the “opportunity is large,” a senior leader on the sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) front outlined a vision where production of SAF can grow to at least one billion gallons a year by 2025, the number of pathways to develop it more than doubles, and the industry progresses toward the goal of a 100 percent sustainable option.
Speaking during the virtual NBAA Go Flight Operations Conference this week, Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) executive director Steve Csonka outlined the building block approach that the industry has taken to get to the point where the industry now can use a 50/50 jet-A and SAF blend as a true drop-in solution.
In the 50/50 blend, SAF has proven to meet the necessary fuel spec and has demonstrated that it reduces life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 50 percent and on average anywhere between 60 and 80 percent or more. Csonka added that “we can make those reductions greater” later this year, noting that some producers using feedstocks such as tallow and cooking oil are on track to produce SAF by year-end that reaches almost 100 percent reduction of GHG emissions.
As for availability, currently, there are three major producers who combined for a production capacity of nearly 60 million gallons in 2020, with Neste accounting for 35 million gallons of that total. A couple more are joining the fray this year, bumping up that tally to an estimated 72 million. But more than a dozen—that are announced at this point—are set to come online over the next few years beyond that. But this output capacity is expected to grow more than 1,000 percent next year, reaching 746 million gallons, and ultimately to one billion gallons by 2025.
But Csonka added this only accounts for announced plans. A number of others are bubbling under the surface, leading the International Air Transport Association to suggest production could actually reach two billion gallons by 2025. “I agree with those assessments,” he said, but those production plans need to go public before CAAFI will take them into account.
To reach that mark, Csonka sees the number of SAF pathways substantially growing. Currently, seven pathways are approved using various feedstocks to produce SAF. There are another six in process and a whole group beyond that, Csonka said, estimating it could be as much as 15.
The varied pathways and use of feedstocks are important because critics have levied charges that SAF could cause deforestation of the planet or limit food availability to meet the demand necessary to satisfy aviation needs. But Csonka stressed, “the aviation enterprise is clearly in tune with our need to be sustainable” and is working to develop various means that are regionally appropriate. This includes expansion into areas such as waste use.
Another area of criticism, he acknowledged, is the use of the 50/50 blend, meaning half is still fossil fuel. But, Csonka added researchers are eying possibilities to “needing less blending or even zero blending. We’re doing the work right now, just like we did 10 years ago with the building block fundamentals, to determine how we get to 100 percent blending and we already know we have several pathways to do that.”
Other key concerns CAAFI and other industry stakeholders are hoping to address surround cost. One area is at the refinery level. “We are exploring how we can utilize existing refinery infrastructure to co-process bio-crudes to keep the investment costs of these facilities reasonable,” he said.
As the prevalence and demand build for biofuel, he cautioned about people looking past its use. “Others talk about better solutions in the 2035 to 2050 timeframe,” Csonka noted, adding he is concerned that there is “a risk of kicking the can down the road and not addressing improvements we can make today through SAF.”
The industry is addressing challenges to get SAF to market in a reasonable timeframe, he concluded.