Discussions about achieving aviation’s commitment to delivering net-zero carbon operations by 2050 are often shrouded in chicken-and-egg circular arguments. How can operators increase their use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) if sufficient supplies aren't available worldwide? How can SAF supplies increase if sufficient demand doesn't exist to justify significant investments in production and distribution infrastructure?
At the Sustainable Skies conference in Farnborough, UK, last month, some air transport industry leaders pointed fingers at energy companies and governments for talking the talk on SAF while failing to walk the walk regarding the change they say they want to see. Several commentators pointed to unprecedented oil company profits bloated over the past 15 months courtesy of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, asking why the lion’s share of these aren’t being diverted into green aviation initiatives.
In 2022, Shell invested $4.3 billion in low-carbon energy solutions, including SAF and hydrogen,—an 89 percent increase from the previous year. Last year, rival BP invested $4.9 billion in what it calls sustainability transition growth, which was up from $2.4 billion in 2021.
Fuel suppliers insist they are fully engaged in the drive for SAF to incrementally replace fossil fuels in aircraft. These efforts are reflected in the Sustainability Summit taking place at EBACE today and tomorrow.
“There has been notable progress in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint but there is a long road ahead,” acknowledged Sergio Nunez, Shell Aviation’s head of marketing and decarbonization. “Coming out of the pandemic, there has been a change in the discussion, with business travel generally now more in the spotlight. At least 5,000 companies have made public commitments on net-zero travel, and what they need to address this is a big task in which SAF can play a big role.”
Business Aviation a Tough Customer for SAF Suppliers
That said, the transition is far from straightforward, according to Air BP aviation sustainability advisor Sven Riede. “Overall, business aviation is in a more challenging position than other SAF customers due to their operational footprint,” he told AIN. “They fly to a lot of unplanned locations at short notice and so have a significantly higher location-to-volume ratio.”
This makes it hard for fuel suppliers to shape their SAF supply network to meet fuel uptake needs that are not as predictable as they are for airlines. “But if you look at the growth curve [in SAF use], it’s impressive and there is now more of an uptick,” Riede noted.
Part of Shell’s commitment to progress is the new biofuels manufacturing facility it is building in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, which Nunez said will be able to produce 820,000 tonnes of SAF and renewable diesel fuel from waste materials. The company (Booth J82) expects this facility to be operational in 2024.
Another of Shell’s green initiatives was the acquisition last year of EcoOils, which uses recycling technology to reduce waste going into the landfill to produce spent bleaching earth oil as a biofuel food stock to make low-carbon fuels, including SAF. The group has also invested in LanzaJet’s efforts to convert alcohol to SAF and also in integrated hydropyrolysis and hydroconversion techniques to convert organic waste into transportation fuels.
For now, though, aircraft operators wanting to burn more SAF in place of jet-A continue to pay heavy premiums and there seems to be little sign of this changing, with significant regional variations in price. Nunez told AIN that government mandates setting minimum levels of SAF supplies will be important in removing this disincentive. “We need globally aligned policy to move this space forward,” he commented. “On a global basis, we should have a 10 percent mandate [for the proportion of available SAF in the total aviation fuel supply] by 2030, and we also need policymakers to work on incentives that would help to give some price stability.”
Government Mandates Help Companies Do the Right Thing
Air BP (Booth N88) also sees government mandates to ensure specific proportions of SAF availability as helpful, with Riede pointing to directives already issued by countries such as Norway, Sweden, and France, alongside new incentives to expand production in the UK, the Netherlands, and the U.S. “This is more about demand aggregation,” he said. “Because otherwise it’s harder [to justify] putting infrastructure in place for small volumes. So the first step is to scale up demand and achieve a network effect that drives down auxiliary costs.”
Part of Shell’s response to this challenge is the Avelia book-and-claim platform that it launched in June 2022 with Accenture and American Express Global Business Travel to use blockchain technology to pay for SAF that they won’t burn in their own aircraft to claim environmental benefits associated with their own jet-A-fueled flying. “It allows operators to share the cost of SAF in a way that is not connected to the physical supply so that it is not reliant on the fuel that goes into an individual aircraft and avoids double counting [of the amount of carbon dioxide reduced in the process],” Nunez explained. “When you inject SAF into the [worldwide] network you can reduce life-cycle emissions by [up to] 80 percent.”
Shell is working with the Smart Freight Centre and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Transportation and Logistics to ensure that Avelia is based on credible carbon-accounting practices. It said the platform meets all the requirements of the internationally recognized SAF greenhouse gas emission accounting and insetting guidelines.
According to many estimates, SAF could account for 65 percent of global aviation fuel supplies by 2050. With an eye to closing the gap, Shell said, battery-electric and hydrogen propulsion must be viewed as part of the solution, but only on a gradual basis that will increase from the 2030s and into the 2040s due to limitations in aircraft range and payload. Shell is working with hydrogen propulsion innovator ZeroAvia to prepare the infrastructure to support planned flights in converted regional aircraft, such as the Dornier 228, from 2025.
BP’s investments include the ramping up of SAF production at its refineries at Castellón in Spain and Lingen in Germany using biogenic feedstocks and hydro-processed esters and fatty acids techniques. These sites will also be used to manufacture hydrogen that could be used in aircraft for direct combustion and to run fuel cells, with additional output to come from a new site at Teesside in the UK. In March, the Castellón site delivered the first consignment of SAF meeting the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification standard.
The company’s medium-term goal is to have a 20 percent share of the SAF market in 2030. In addition to more production, plans call for expanding the number of Air BP locations where the fuel is available from the current level of no more than 30 out of its 700 locations worldwide.
TotalEnergies Aviation (Booth X78) is also stepping up its SAF offering through a commitment to producing 1.5 million tonnes by 2030. The French energy group is making biofuels from waste and residues from sources such as animal fat and used cooking oil, as well as synthetic fuels.