International Finance

Going green with sustainable aviation fuel

Many carriers have tried biofuel or green flights and have been successful, but it hasn’t become mainstream just yet

During the early years of the aviation industry, luxury and speed were the main drivers of intercontinental travel. Efficiency has always been another significant contributor that made air travel more prominent. In the current era, airplane engines are at the cutting edge of efficiency, and aircraft are more aerodynamic and lighter than before. As environmental concerns rise along with climate change, the aviation industry is embarking on a new journey, to make aviation green or carbon neutral.

As customer awareness continues to grow, their demand increases. Climate change is real and talking a flight means you are contributing to climate change. Many demands change and a lot is going on at this moment from hydrogen-powered electric flights and battery-powered flights to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). However, all these solutions are still in the development stage and it will take a while before they could become commercially available.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel, on the other hand, is a solution that is already available today. It is compatible with existing aircraft engines and airport infrastructure and does not require any extra investments into these. The carbon emissions from the aviation industry contributes to about two percent of the world’s carbon emissions. It is a challenge and growing concerns for climate change has forced the industry to seek alternatives. Carriers across the globe are researching on SAF as it results in reduction in carbon emissions. Even though SAF has been in practice since 2008, it’s been used in small and insignificant amounts. But things are changing.

What has happened so far
For a long time, air travel’s primary source was fossil-derived liquid fuel.. Even though it has been proved to be a reliable power source for several years, it contributes significantly to climate change. This led to the need to transition from traditional fossil jet fuel to alternative sources of energy. Sustainable aviation fuel can reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent compared to fossil fuel. Another advantage of SAF is that it can be blended with traditional fossil jet fuel to substitute the existing fuels without redesigning the engine or the aircraft.

Aviation analyst Ameya Joshi and the founder of Network Thoughts, told International Finance that SAF is the future of aviation. However, the time taken towards achieving this is slower than anticipated. He added, “A lot of airlines have tried biofuel or green flights and have been successful, but it hasn’t become mainstream just yet.”

The first-ever flight that operated using SAF flew from London to Amsterdam in 2008. The commercial aircraft, Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747, flew using a 20 percent mix of biofuel derived from coconut and babassu oil. Since then, several airlines have operated using SAF or biofuel. Between 2011 and 2015, about 22 airlines served over 2,500 commercial passenger flights with blends of up to 50 percent SAF. The alternate fuel was produced from feedstock, including used cooking oil, jatropha, camelina, algae and sugarcane.

In 2016, Norway-based Oslo Airport installed a regular, sustainable fuel supply through the common hydrant system. Finland-based alternative fuel producer Neste, Netherlands-based supplier SkyNRG and Air BP of the UK were involved in the installation. In the same year, Chicago-based United Airlines became the first airline to introduce SAF into normal business operations by commencing daily flights from Los Angeles Airport that was supplied by AltAir of the US. Some airports such as Oslo, Stockholm, Brisbane and Los Angeles also agreed to provide SAF through their hydrant system.

Finland-based oil refining and marketing company Neste, which is also the world’s leading producer of renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel, has launched the first in-flight 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel emissions study on commercial passenger jet. According to a press release, Neste is investing approximately €190 million to upgrade its refineries which will enable it to produce up to 500,000 tons of SAF per annum.

Sustainable aviation fuel can help achieve climate goals
In 2009, the aviation industry adopted a set of goals to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) introduced a four-pillar action plan to achieve these emission goals. One of them was the deployment of sustainable aviation fuels. In the year before the pandemic, the aviation industry produced 915 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and approximately contributed two percent of emissions globally. SAF comes as a game-changer in reducing the carbon footprint and other alternatives to traditional fuels such as hydrogen-powered and electric-powered flights.

In this regard, Jonathan Wood, Vice-President Renewable Aviation of Neste, told International Finance, “Neste MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel is a jet fuel made from sustainably sourced, renewable waste and residue raw materials. It can be used as a drop-in fuel and is blended with fossil jet fuel and certified to meet ASTM jet fuel specifications.

“SAFs, in its neat form and over the life cycle, reduces life cycle greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 percent compared to fossil jet fuel use (calculated with established life cycle assessment LCA methodologies, among which EU RED and CORSIA).”

In 2016, IATA implemented the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). This was put in action to help the industry reduce carbon dioxide emissions to half by 2050. Carbon offsetting is when a company or an organisation compensates for their carbon emissions by purchasing credits from the carbon market. These carbon credits are generated by projects that reduce carbon emissions in any part of the world.

IATA estimated that without CORSIA, the carbon footprint of international aviation would increase from 600 million tonnes in 2020 to almost 900 million tonnes by 2035. Initially, the scheme was intended to be based on the average emission of 2019 and 2020. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UN decided to calculate the baseline only from the emissions data of 2019, which would be more accurate in nature without the border crossing restrictions that hindered the aviation industry later in 2020.

Wood added that aviation would remain vital for global business. Thus the aviation industry must look into the options to reduce carbon emissions, especially post-pandemic, to benefit the economic recovery. He said, “SAF provides an immediate greenhouse gas reduction, and it is available today, so the airline industry can start achieving their climate goals today.

“In addition to reducing life cycle greenhouse gas emissions related to the use of conventional jet fuel, sustainable aviation fuels also provide additional non-CO2 benefits. Local emissions are reduced as the use of SAF produces less particulate and sulphur emissions. The reduction in soot particulate emissions also leads to reduced contrail cirrus, which has additional climate benefits.”

However, there are also some skepticism associated with sustainable aviation fuels and its ability to meet climate change goals. In this regard, Jason Chua, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Universal Hydrogen told International Finance, “While synthetic aviation fuel (SAF) is considered a ‘green fuel,’ the best SAF implementations abate less than 40 percent of net emissions.

“SAF have demonstrated at best 80 percent offsetting of in-flight emissions, a 50 percent blend with traditional fuels, and immense areas of biomass. They have a long way to go toward carbon neutral and may never get there. SAF also do not mitigate NOx emissions which, at altitude, have a significant global warming impact.”

“In order to meet Paris Agreement commitments, you must take the carbon out of the fuel source. We considered numerous sustainable energy sources – from nuclear and wind power to batteries, hydrogen, and SAFs. It quickly became clear that the best, and only long-term answer to the aviation industry’s carbon emissions problem, is green hydrogen,” he added.

Production and its effects on the environment
The production of SAF is from sustainable feedstocks and is quite similar to the traditional aviation fuel. The feedstock of SAF range from municipal solid waste: from households and businesses, cellulosic waste: excess wood, agricultural and forestry residues, used cooking oil, cameline: an energy crop with high lipid oil content, jatropha: a plant that produces seeds that contain inedible lipid oil that can be used to produce fuel, halophytes: salt marsh grasses and other saline habitat species, algae and non-biological alternative fuels.

SAF is subjected to laboratory, ground and flight tests under internationally recognised standards to substitute fossil fuels. This alternative should suffice the qualities and characteristics of the traditional jet fuel to be eligible to replace it. The substitution ensures that the manufacturers need not rebuild or redesign the aircraft to benefit from SAF. Likewise, even the suppliers and airports can avoid rebuilding their fuel delivery systems. Once the SAF undergoes approval and certification, it is safe to be used as fuel in an aircraft.

The production of SAF, however, stirred concerns about deforestation among environmentalists. Certain biofuels that are produced from non-sustainable feedstocks might lead to deforestation. Palm oil is one prime example. Fuels produced in this manner are called drop-in fuels, which can be automatically incorporated into existing airport fueling systems. It meets the sustainability criteria like reducing lifecycle carbon emissions, limited freshwater requirements, elimination of competition with needed food production and no deforestation.

Commenting on the environmental concerns, Ameya Joshi said, “SAF from organic material does risk deforestation. However, afforestation is a known way of taking care of deforestation and is used in a couple of countries for decades. Since SAF cannot be created from just about anything in the forest, there will be dedicated plantations that will be used for the purpose.”

In this context, Wood added, “Neste’s sustainable aviation fuel is produced 100 percent from renewable waste and residue raw materials. Neste’s use of waste and residues mitigate the deforestation risk as their use reduces the need for land use changes. Neste has a very clear stand against actions that cause deforestation. We engage in proactive sustainability projects beyond our own supply chains to mitigate deforestation risk.”

Decarbonisation action from the governments
Due to the pandemic carbon emissions form the aviation industry have reduced, however, the numbers are expected to grow in the coming years due to increase in air travel. Moving forward, the role of governments in limiting the carbon emissions of aviation becomes crucial. Despite the success of a recent long-haul flight, SAF is currently limited to power short and medium-haul flights owing to financial constraints.

Governments and industrialists worldwide recognise the importance of a long-term plan to avoid the slow burn disaster of climate change. Implementing a systems-thinking perspective over reactionary policies in a short-term framework is challenging, and the transition of the aviation sector is also not easy. Effective collaboration of the public and private sectors across national borders can provide a lasting change. Yet, the power of implementation and designing long-term visions for sustainable aviation fuel for the aviation industry or other environmental policies are in the hands of the individual governments.

Regulatory harmonisation is essential to enable efficient operations and technology deployment, especially in an international sector like aviation. However, in supporting SAF, the available feedstock and energy sources vary significantly by geography. It is crucial that each economy devises market-appropriate policies to face the challenges.

The Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) recently released a report named Powering the Future of Flight. It presented six steps for the governments to help the aviation industry move towards a more sustainable path. The steps include foster research into new feedstock sources and refining processes, de-risk public and private investments in SAF, providing incentives for airlines to use SAF from an early stage, encourage stakeholders to commit to robust international sustainability criteria, understand local green growth opportunities and establish coalitions encompassing all parts of the supply chain.

So far, Europe has taken the lead in supporting the development of sustainable aviation fuel. From 2020 the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) II (2020-2030) will apply a multiplier for producers making SAF rather than ground transport fuel. Moving towards the path of net-zero aviation, the UK government announced the Green Fuel, Green Skies competition in March 2021.

The aviation companies that produce SAF from wastes are supported by the government under the scheme. For the development of SAF production plants at scale, companies will be able to bid for a share of £15 million. A commission instituted by the Swedish government proposed a reduction obligation, Flightpath 2019. It sets a requirement for fuel producers to reduce their emissions by greater uptake of bio-jet fuel. Along with a blending mandate for each year from 2021 to 2030, the long-term goal of the Swedish government is to use 100 percent SAF by 2045.

The Norwegian government has also announced a blending mandate which requires jet fuel suppliers to blend at least 0.5 percent of SAF from 2020. It also aims to use 30 percent of SAF by 2035. To develop the SAF industry, the French government launched a roadmap that forecasts fossil fuel to be replaced with two percent of SAF from 2025, five percent in 2030 and 50 percent in 2050. Aviation Initiative for Renewable Energy in Germany (AIREG) aims to substitute 10 percent of kerosene fuel with SAF nationwide by 2025. Under EU RED II, Spain also proposed an initiative called ‘the balanced compromise’. About two percent of the total supply of aviation fuel will be replaced with SAF in 2025. In Indonesia, the biofuel mandate aims to use two percent of bio-jet energy for aviation by 2018, three percent by 2020 and 5percent by 2025.

The future of sustainable aviation fuel
Currently, there are seven approved sustainable aviation fuel pathways that use a combination of different processes and feedstocks. Every pathway has an advantage ranging from the availability and cost of feedstock, cost of processes and carbon reductions. SAF pathways can help the aviation industry reduce carbon emissions and achieve the goals set by IATA.

Joshi stated that “The next five years should see airlines along with aircraft and engine manufacturers invest in more research towards what kind of blend is possible and the benefits it sees over short, medium and long haul sectors.” However, there will be some scale back on investments and research as the aviation industry has suffered the most in the pandemic situation, he added. SAF can soon be considered to be used as a mainstream fuel throughout the nation in few countries worldwide.

The ever-changing prices of crude oil and the demand and supply are some of the limitations of using fossil fuel in the aviation industry. SAF as an alternative fuel proves to have a more diverse geographic supply as its production is not limited to the drilling of fossil fuels. Feedstocks of this sustainable option, generated from wastes, can be grown or produced anywhere in the world and transported easily into the supply chains.

The aviation industry depends on a single energy source. The fluctuating price of crude oil makes it difficult to plan aviation budgets for the long term. SAF reduces the aviation industry’s exposure to fuel cost volatility. On a social level, SAF can help developing countries strategise waste management systems, which are a primary environmental concern. It also helps in creating job opportunities.

SAF provides multiple economic benefits to geographic locations that are marginal or unviable land for food crops. At the same time, it has to be suitable to grow SAF crops. The massive generation of municipal waste is also a potential SAF producing source. Thus, developing countries will benefit the most from SAF production without negatively impacting their local food production ability.

In 2019, The World Economic Forum launched the Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) initiative as a coalition across the value chain of aviation to boost the transition to net-zero flying 2050. It partnered with senior leaders from the industry, government and civil society to draft principles to achieve zero-emissions aviation through sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and other clean propulsion technologies.

Wood said, “We see a growing demand for SAF in the market, which is why we are expanding our production capacity. Neste’s current MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel production capacity is 100,000 tons (approximately 34 million gallons) annually. With the investment projects at Neste’s Singapore and Rotterdam refineries, Neste will have the capacity to produce some 1.5 million tons (515 million gallons) of SAF annually by the end of 2023.”

In conclusion, the history of the aviation industry is on the verge of making a remarkable step to promote sustainability in the sector. Yet, the challenge of commercialising SAF still remains. It is highly possible that a significant supply of alternative fuel in the traditional jet fuel mix can be achieved in the near future. With the help of their governments, stakeholders and airlines should identify feedstock and fuel suppliers to enhance the low-carbon and alternate future for flight.

SAF could improve air quality and meet emission targets set by international aviation associations and state governments for a sustainable future. As soon as the environmental benefits and commercial demands are highlighted, the SAF supply chain can be expected to be prevalent in the industry.

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