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Sustainable aviation fuel will be game changer for aviation industry


ICF’s Eliot Lees and Yasar Yetiskin explain why airports need to pay attention to and play their part in the development of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Aircraft emissions represent the single largest source of environment damaging greenhouse gases at an airport.

Indeed, while the long-term decarbonisation goals for airports focus on airport infrastructure (Scope 1), and the sources of generated power (Scope 2), more than 60% of an airport’s total carbon emissions (in some case, above 90%) can be generated from jet fuel combustion (Scope 3).

However, reducing Scope 3 emissions is not in the direct control of airports, and so shaping new practices and policies to address this key area requires creativity and imagination by all aviation stakeholders – including by airport management.

The aviation world is looking to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) as the single most significant action to decarbonise aviation by 2050. SAF is a ‘drop-in’ jet fuel, meaning that airlines will be using existing aircraft and aircraft technology to achieve their goals by blending SAF and fossil-based jet fuel.

However, currently it can only be blended up 50%, due to limitations related to lack of aromatics content in the SAF. But new generation jet engines and aircraft will be able to utilise up to 100% SAF, which will allow for greater uplift.

While electric and hydrogen powered aircraft show promise to fundamentally change aviation – neither is a near-term solution, and neither would move the sustainability dial by the level needed to reach the overarching goal. Therefore, the aviation industry decarbonisation plan expects that up to 71% of the industry’s decarbonising effort will come from SAF by 2050.

While the end product of SAF is 98% comparable to today’s jet fuel, SAF can be made from a variety of environmentally friendly feedstock such as used cooking oils, plants and wood by-product, alcohol, municipal waste, industrial waste, carbon dioxide, air and even water.

These feedstocks can be converted into SAF through a variety of chemical processes that will ultimately lead to the end product – either sustainable jet fuel or renewable diesel. The chemistry to achieve SAF is well understood.

The challenge to decarbonise the aviation industry is scaling up the SAF refining processes to provide the volumes that are needed – and being able to produce SAF at a price competitive with jet fuel. This is the challenge facing the aviation and travel industry.

Over the past three years, SAF has captured the imagination of the aviation industry, as well as the focus of airline press releases. However, the truth of the matter is that we still have a very long way to go.

In 2021, only 80 million litres of SAF was utilised across the world by many airlines, which represented less than 0.02% of the global fossil-based jet fuel consumption. Nevertheless, the production of SAF is anticipated to dramatically change over the next several years, as seen by the figures in the top chart on page 21.

Many airlines have announced commitments to purchase SAF, so the aviation industry will see a rapid ramp up in use in the very near-term.

Many countries across the world are introducing SAF policies to enable rapid scale of SAF by 2030. These policies mostly focus on either supporting SAF supply through incentives or stimulating SAF demand through mandates.

The US has been introducing incentive-based policy measures (carrots) to support SAF production, aiming to reduce production costs. In addition, the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provides operational subsidies to users based on the emission reductions provided from the SAF, and capital grants.

Currently, California is the most advantageous state to produce SAF and uplift SAF molecules, due to availability of various incentives. However, other states are also planning to introduce SAF specific policies. This means increased SAF related activity at the airports in the states with strong SAF policies.

In the US, the major airlines have pledged to reach 11 billion litres of SAF consumed by 2030. This ambitious seven-year goal that will require close collaboration between airlines, fuel producers, governments, and other stakeholders (including airports).

To achieve these goals, SAF producers will need to construct new refineries (modify others), prove out the commercial viability of various feedstock/processing/delivery at a scale that can deliver on what the aviation industry needs.

The SAF that has been used to date has been using a single processing approach called HEFA. The feedstocks used in this process are used cooking oil, soybean oil and fat rendering.

The challenge of this approach is that there is not sufficient feedstock from these commodities to support the industry goals for 2030. So, other feedstock and processes must be used. Some of these are coming online in the next several years.

The EU has been adopting a different approach, by proposing mandates (sticks). Starting from 2025, airlines departing from the EU airports will have to utilise SAF. It has already started with small percentages in some counties, but by 2030, 5% SAF utilisation will be mandatory.

Although physical SAF will be available at limited airports, unlike the US, the EU is working a book and claim based mechanism, meaning that airlines will be able to take off with conventional jet fuel, as long as they buy the environmental benefits of SAF separately.

Other regions, including Middle East and Asia, have also been proposing policies to support the SAF scale up, with a focus on their region’s specific opportunities and challenges.

For example, due to lack of biogenic feedstocks, and the cheap renewable energy availability, the UAE has been exclusively exploring alternative ways to produce SAF.

In that context, the World Economic Forum published a Power-to-Liquid roadmap for the UAE in collaboration with ICF and the UAE Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure.

The map above provides a snapshot of some of the most high-profile SAF policies either in place or being planned across the globe.

While airlines and governments have undertaken the primary responsibility to adopt SAF, forward thinking airports are considering what role airports can play in encouraging SAF usage.

There have been some tentative steps taken in this area. For example, in the past few years, Swedish airport operator, Swedavia, has organised a group of concerned national and local governmental stakeholders to contribute money towards a SAF incentive funding pool.

The Swedavia SAF incentive programme enters into agreement with airlines to support a portion of the cost differential between SAF and conventional jet fuel.

Another European airport is considering a differentiated landing fee scheme which provide reduced landing fees for SAF powered flights.

In the US, airports are looking at buying airline issued SAF Certificates (offset rights) and still others are looking towards an innovative SAF Certificate Clearing House programme that will facilitate corporate travel departments to offset business travel from airlines using SAF consumed at that specific airport. More airport initiatives of this sort are needed.

Effectively tackling Scope 3 emissions through SAF is the key to decarbonising airports. While airports will likely not be the primary driver behind the technical development and adoption of SAF, airports still can play a role in the process – by designing innovative incentive programmes, by establishing local mandates, and by serving as a catalyst to focus aviation stakeholders to move SAF consumption forward.

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