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SAF suffers growing pains

Among the various threats business aviation faces worldwide, sustainability is at the top of the list. Whether or not one agrees with the logic of focusing on a sector that contributes a small fraction to worldwide emissions, the chorus for restrictions is intensifying and solutions must be found today.
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The industry’s biggest step toward better environmental stewardship is unquestionably sustainable aviation fuel, so called because it’s derived from renewable sources. The total reduction in life cycle emissions varies among manufacturers and the type of raw material being converted, but technology exists to reduce business aviation’s footprint by up to 80 percent.

In the United States, public pressure toward business aviation isn’t yet at a breaking point. Despite pushback on high-profile celebrities using business aviation for what some people deem inefficient reasons, restrictive regulations aren’t expected in the near term, and policy makers aren’t yet making business aviation sustainability part of their platforms. However, for corporate operators, business aviation represents a potentially immense source of carbon emissions to the overall company, and sustainability is becoming increasingly important to corporate missions.

In Europe the situation is more critical. Highly public climate protests are now common at many large business aviation events, and sustainability is a key foundation to government platforms around the continent. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association estimates business aviation accounts for only 0.04 percent of all man-made carbon emissions, but given the inherent class issues surrounding the sector, it’s not surprising that the pressure to quickly switch to a more sustainable fuel isn’t necessarily in proportion to the industry’s climate toll.

Sustainability is paramount for the airlines as well, which make up the bulk of the remaining 2 percent of total emissions around the world coming from aviation. In France last year, the government instituted an outright ban on flights between cities where train travel was possible in less than 2.5 hours. Although that impacted only three routes from Paris, it’s regarded as the world’s first flight ban due to emissions. Private aviation was spared from additional bans, although hefty additional taxes and some restrictions have been floated as ways to disincentivize private jet travel.

Given the worldwide push for sustainability, the question is not whether restrictions will come, but when. The International Business Aviation Council, a worldwide group of national business aviation associations, and GAMA, have committed to a net-zero carbon emissions goal by 2050. The primary driver behind the plan is SAF.

SAF includes a wide range of fuels sourced from renewable resources that meet the current ASTM standard for Jet A. To an end user the fuel is effectively the same as Jet A, and is fully compatible with all aircraft and engines that currently use Jet A. Current regulations allow SAF to be blended up to 50 percent with Jet A without additional certifications. Most of today’s blends hover around 30 percent, or even less. Made from sources such as used cooking oil, feedstocks, and biomass, the fuel has the potential to greatly reduce business aviation’s carbon emissions. There’s only one problem: Refineries can’t make it fast enough.

Last year all producers combined made approximately 600 million liters of SAF, according to the International Air Transport Association. This year production is expected to increase to an impressive 1.875 billion liters. However, that still only accounts for 0.53 percent of aviation’s needed capacity, indicating a long road ahead.

When AOPA Pilot spoke to Steve Maloney, the chief operating officer of Sun Air Jets in southern California, last year, he said that demand had far outstripped supply. “If I could get it, I would be selling it like it is the second elixir of life,” he said. “The suppliers overpromised and underdelivered.” Maloney thinks he could sell SAF at nearly any price given the strong demand in his area, an indication of just how out of balance the supply and demand is.

California remains the SAF hotbed, in terms of both supply—thanks to refinery access and airline commitments—and demand. But things are slowly spreading east. Atlantic Aviation, one of the country’s largest FBO chains, committed last year to carrying SAF in its four Colorado locations. Calls to each confirmed SAF in stock, although none of the staff knew the term SAF. Price premiums hovered around $2 a gallon.

Atlantic Aviation’s fuel comes from AvFuel, which purchases it from Neste, a Finnish manufacturer that has become a world leader in SAF production. At this point the fuel is derived from used cooking oil and other fats, but Neste has plans for additional sources. As one commenter said, there’s not enough used cooking oil in the world to power the aviation sector. Biodiesel is also more profitable, further dampening enthusiasm amongst refiners.

Congress has started to take notice, and has begun working on incentive programs aimed at increasing production domestically. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 set an SAF credit for producers of $1.25 a gallon for a formulation that reduces lifecycle greenhouse emissions by 50 percent, and an additional penny for each percent reduction beyond 50.

Unfortunately for environmentalists, one of the most efficient ways to meet the emissions target and become eligible for a credit is by converting ethanol to SAF. A few plants across the country have opened for this purpose recently, but the process is fraught with problems. Steve Csonka, the executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, told Business Jet Traveler magazine that if every ethanol refinery in the United States today converted to SAF, it still wouldn’t meet the demand for jet fuel. And many environmental groups find the use of feedstocks for fuel, especially those that then go through a conversion process, to be virtually no better than petroleum-based fuels.

The executive branch is also engaged, with grants coming from the FAA, and a program across agencies that is set to evaluate, guide, and then award further grants as Congress funds them.

For companies that need to show sustainability efforts today, there are book-and-claim programs that enable them to purchase the SAF to be used elsewhere, and then claim credit for the sustainability investment. For now, it’s the best most operators can do as they wait for the supply to catch up to the considerable worldwide demand.

[email protected]

Ian J. Twombly
Ian J. Twombly
Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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