Sustainable aviation fuel is a numbers game

Sustainability will be a key item in every airport’s business objectives, but the control of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will have been seen to a large extent as beyond the airport’s remit. 

However the commercialisation of SAF is underway in earnest and the landscape is very different now than even five or ten years ago. This means one eye will be on airports and how they can play a part in making the case for SAF stack up. 

Emissions targets are a tangible reminder that we’re all contributing to CO2 levels. While modern jet aircraft are 70% more fuel efficient than their 1960s equivalents, the impacts are still high. Prior to the Covid pandemic, aviation was contributing 12% of all global transport CO2 emissions, says ATAG, with medium to long haul (>1500km) contributing 80% of this figure. And since there are no practical alternatives to long haul flights or to the use of liquid hydrocarbon fuels, then one of the few options to reduce those impacts is to look at sustainable fuels.

Feasibility is switching to practicality 

Sustainable fuels or new technologies are already being used in a number of industries, and there are plenty of initiatives to encourage both the development of sustainable technologies and stimulation in demand.   

When it comes to electric cars, for example, the generation of energy centrally and new storage technologies are facilitating rapid development across virtually all manufacturers. However in the aviation sector electricity is not a practical solution, and there is no clear alternative to liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Aircraft will, by necessity, rely on kerosene-type fuels for many years to come – that is, a blend of different hydrocarbon molecules such as paraffins, olefins, naphthenes, and aromatics – principally in the range C8 to C16

While we’ve relied on crude oil as a source of these hydrocarbons, any organic matter has the potential to become jet fuel – delivering hydrocarbon molecules that, with appropriate chemistry, can be synthesised into the right components. Therefore the door is very much open for practical development of sustainable fuel. 

Legislating for change

Regulations play a part here. Current industry standards do not allow for fully synthetic fuels to be used as a substitute for conventional jet fuel refined from crude oil – however they do allow up to 50% Sustainable content (depending on the manufacturing process used)  

The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) from ICAO has certainly kick-started a shift towards considering jet fuels which contain renewables as components, and the industry has made specific allowances for renewables in its approvals and specification process. Carbon offsetting is of course not a move towards renewables per se, but CORSIA’s approach to monitoring emission levels on international flights, which will be mandatory from 2027, will be a highly visible incentive. More than 60 states have already adopted the scheme on a voluntary basis. 

Individual countries are also reacting. The UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation will include sustainable aviation fuels, and how this will be good not only for meeting CO2 targets but creating jobs. Several other countries have done the same. 

Commitment to CORSIA is high, but let’s not forget how poorly the aviation proposals within the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) went down in 2012. The scheme was deeply unpopular with Russia, India and China, and the USA legally prohibited US carriers from participating in it. The ETS persists, but with far less reach and impact than the EU originally intended. Today 31 countries participate, but in the current phase until 31 December 2023, the ETS only applies to flights between airports located in the European Economic Area. Aviation is a global industry – the EU cannot remain ring-fenced if the scheme is to work and if things are really to change. 

The emphasis here is of course on countries and airlines – and not on the responsibilities of airports. But airports will be key in facilitating change. Avinor, which operates Oslo International Airport and nearly 50 others in Norway, believes 30% of aviation fuel used at their airports could be sustainable by 2030. But they, like other airports, will have to overcome the issues of availability and price. 

Avinor’s pro-active approach involves identifying feedstocks (typically forestry waste and wood pulp residues) and then looking at a publicly funded yet commercial proposition that airlines would be prepared to buy in to. They are proposing initiatives that bring airlines together in the way that aviation fuel is funded and purchased from the aviation fuel operator at the airport. The operator is, of course, not always the airport itself. 

Indeed it’s a big ask for a new fuel type to make a mark on our sector. Historically nearly 300 million tonnes of jet fuel has been consumed across the world annually. To source, process and synthesise the volume of organic feedstocks to make a dent in that is an incredibly tall order. Notwithstanding, a small dent would be a good one. 

Supply chains are key

The supply chains are the key to making sustainable fuel adoption possible. Some suppliers exist in a fledgling way currently, and it’s clear to us that SAF can be manufactured in far greater volumes than it is now. There is sufficient raw waste material available without impinging on food crops and land. This includes forest waste, agricultural waste and municipal solid waste. 

Not only will SAF need full integration into airport fuel operations, it will also need incentivising to create availability – be that through industry commitment, customer demand or price. Government incentives cannot be relied upon alone.  

Enough airlines have made statements that commit to sustainability.  This is a given. If the interest exists, we come back to availability and cost. The supply chains that need to be established will not be the same as those used for traditional jet fuel until they converge just upstream of the airport.  

Government incentives are often eroded before they have made a real impact. There is pressure on every public purse, and it is difficult to justify financial incentives for a fuel which is international by definition. The key is to look at more elegant solutions where the SAF process helps economically to support a host industrial process, and vice versa. These opportunities need to be explored, and this means bringing a country’s influencers, airports and supply chains together, a process often facilitated by businesses like ours. 

The design and engineering aspects – from scoping to a fully functioning manufacturing plant – need to be considered, managing how investors, project proponents and constructors can achieve their goals.  

Then we consider how the supply chain can be optimised so that SAF components can find their way efficiently into the supply of fuel to airports. We would also consider offtake partner negotiation to enable producers to meet airlines’ requirements in terms of availability, quality and price. The airport would be central to the process. 

What could this look like in practice? In an ideal world the Sustainable jet fuel components would be manufactured in small units local to raw material sources. By small we think upwards of 150,000 tonnes per year as a lower limit, therefore not inconsiderable. Distributed sites would each feed into the established jet fuel supply chains upstream of airports. This could enable multiple airports to take SAF. 

In a true sustainable workflow we would seek the users of byproducts, such as heat and power, of the manufacturing process. They would cluster around these sites, delivering a source of revenue and themselves contributing to regional economies.  

In financial terms the outputs for a country can be positive. At one end there are great alternatives for waste to create usable energy, which is good for sustainability targets and the planet. At the other there is growth in industry, jobs and cost-savings that will bolster rural economies and the public purse.  

Airports and airlines clearly win too. To contemporise Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’, green is good. 

Covid postscript

IATA is currently projecting that air traffic volumes will not return to pre-Covid levels until 2024 at the earliest. From this it may be assumed that aviation fuel volumes will also experience similar re-growth patterns. However we do not think that this will be the case, and there are several reasons why. 

  1. The world airline fleet is becoming ever-more fuel-efficient – pre-Covid the improvement was approx. 2% per year as various airlines brought newer aircraft types into their fleets. This meant that the general average 5% annual growth in aviation was offset so that growth in aviation fuel demand was approx. 3% per annum. If we assume that the 2019 demand for aviation fuel was 100 units, this would imply that 2024 demand will also be 100 units. 
  1. As airlines return to operations and bring aircraft out of long-term storage, the older and/or less fuel-efficient types (e.g. 4 engined A380s, B747s) will not all return to service. Therefore there will be a step change in the global fleet’s fuel-efficiency. This may mean that 2024 aviation fuel demand is only 90 units. 
  1. Pre-Covid, SAF was in its nascence, and supply amounted to less than 0.01% of global aviation fuel demand. With the burgeoning interest in SAF, supply may be able to satisfy something like 2% of 2019 demand – if that demand had remained. 
  1. However, because 2024 demand will be significantly lower than 2019 levels, SAF may comprise about 2.25% of aviation fuel supply. Whilst not a huge amount, it is clear that SAF will be playing an ever-more important role in the future.
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