The idea of flying on a plane fueled by cooking oil waste would have been ridiculous a decade ago. Now, this is reality. Sustainable aviation fuels, according to some, are the only way air travel can decarbonize meaningfully.
Sustainable aviation fuels have the potential to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by as much as 34 percent. That’s what the managing director of Airlines for Europe, a trade organization representing 70 percent of the industry, told Argus recently in an interview.
“SAFs are a huge chunk, 34pc, of the entire emissions reduction potential by 2050,” Thomas Reynaert said. “This excludes some 10pc in carbon offsets. The biggest emission reduction share comes from improved aircraft technology with 37pc.”
Waste oil and garbage
But what are these sustainable aviation fuels made of? Well, waste cooking oil is one feedstock used in their production. Others include animal fats and other plant oils, solid waste from households and businesses, including things like paper and packaging, and even food waste, as detailed by BP.
This makes sustainable aviation fuels double positive: on the one hand, they reduce a flight’s emissions by up to 80 percent, and on the other, they reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills. The sustainable fuel can be blended at up to 50 percent with regular jet fuel without affecting the aircraft’s performance, BP’s website explains, or the way it loads the fuel.
There is growing interest in the fuels thanks to their potential to reduce emissions over their lifecycle. The carbon dioxide absorbed by plants that are then turned into biomass used to produce SAF is calculated against the carbon dioxide emissions of this SAF’s combustion during a flight. This is the way most total emissions get calculated or estimated. According to the International Air Transport Association, this year SAF production will reach 100 million liters. Another 7 billion liters are in forward purchase agreements. More than 45 airlines have tried sustainable fuels.
It has to be said that 100 million liters are not a whole lot. Jet fuel demand averaged 7.5 million barrels daily in 2019, which makes the amount of sustainable aviation fuels used in the industry pretty meager. Yet pressure is growing on airlines to use it more, and this pressure is bearing fruit: American Airlines recently struck a deal with German transport and logistics major Kuehne + Nagel to sell it some of its renewable energy credits, earned for its use of SAFs.
Cost and availability If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. SAFs are no exception. True, they have a lot lower carbon footprint than regular jet fuel because of the feedstock they are produced from. But though that feedstock sounds like an unlimited resource, it is not. In fact, the availability of enough waste suitable for turning into sustainable aviation fuel is rather limited, which is a big obstacle in the path of SAFs to dominance.
In a recent article in Advanced Clean Tech News, author Jon Leonard notes that even in California, which has generous subsidies for sustainable aviation fuels, demand for SAFs exceeds their supply. The problem, in this case, is the political landscape, according to Leonard: it encourages more production of biodiesel than sustainable aviation fuels. Also, biodiesel is cheaper to produce.
In for the long haul
Cost is perhaps the biggest challenge for sustainable aviation fuels. What makes it so big is the fact that it is not going away anytime soon.
Production costs for SAFs will remain as high as they are now, said none other than the vice president of one of the biggest producers of sustainable fuels, Neste. Thorsten Lange added, speaking to industry media outlet CAPA, that this will put the airlines that use SAFs at a competitive disadvantage to their rivals, “until passengers begin choosing carriers solely based on sustainability,” Simple Flying wrote.
That time when passengers choose carriers solely based on sustainability may not be too far in the future, although it will only make a difference if there are enough wealthy passengers to be able to afford SAF-fueled flights.
Yet even if that time comes, the availability problem may well remain. Neste, according to Lange, currently produces some 100,000 tons of sustainable aviation fuels annually. The company plans to scale up to 1 million tons by 2023, so a supply increase—and a major one—is possible, at least for Neste. But this compares with pre-pandemic jet fuel consumption of some 330 million tons annually, meaning Neste’s 1 million tons will be a drop in an ocean of jet fuel if consumption ever recovers to pre-pandemic levels.
The industry wants to reduce its emissions, the Load Star’s Ian Putzger reported last month, citing executives. Yet, the availability of SAFs is making this a challenge.
“We need a joint effort and the support of policymakers across the globe to send a clear signal to the fuel producers – we need more fuels from renewables, we need more sustainable aviation fuel,” Putzger quoted a spokesman for logistics major DB Schenker as saying.
Just like other renewable forms of energy, then, SAFs need strong government backing, including policies aimed at encouraging greater availability and lower cost. For now, however, the EU is giving airlines emission reduction targets they are obliged to hit or suffer the consequences. This has prompted budget airlines to ask Brussels to extend the emission requirements to not just European flights but long-haul ones, too. That’s one way of leveling the playing field. The industry needs more ways like that before SAFs get the chance to live up to their promise.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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