I was delighted to read that on March 25, 2022, Airbus performed the first A380 flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). As Airbus notes in its press statement, the A380 is actually the third Airbus aircraft type to fly on 100% SAF within the past year. These three flights are important data points in the larger picture of aviation progress and innovation.
Wider adoption of SAF is an essential step on our journey to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are harmful to our atmosphere. Even though business aviation contributes only a tiny fraction (0.04%) of CO2 emissions, I believe we can play a key role in accelerating the transition to SAF. Business aviation contributes $150 billion to the U.S. economy and employs more than 1.2 million people, according to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). We have the influence to punch above our weight, and we are uniquely positioned to serve as authentic role models for positive change.
Sustainable aviation fuel sounds too good to be true, but it is true. The great advantage of SAF is that it is safe, certified and ready to use today. It’s a drop-in source of fuel with the potential to reduce the aviation sector’s carbon footprint. That’s why it’s important that we, as an industry, champion the production, availability and use of SAF.
SAF is ready for takeoff.
What precisely is SAF? Here’s a handy definition from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“SAF is a biofuel used to power aircraft that has similar properties to conventional jet fuel but with a smaller carbon footprint. Depending on the feedstock and technologies used to produce it, SAF can reduce life cycle GHG emissions dramatically compared to conventional jet fuel.”
The DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has estimated that the U.S. has the potential to sustainably collect one billion dry tons of biomass each year, enough to produce 50 to 60 billion gallons of low-carbon biofuels.
SAF also provides benefits that go beyond reducing CO2 emissions. According to Neste, the world’s leading producer of SAF, not only does SAF reduce GHG by up to 80% compared to fossil jet fuel use, but it also produces lower particulate emissions and less contrail.
Demand is surging, but will supply catch up?
The global market for SAF is expected to grow substantially, driven by demand across every segment of the aviation industry. Bryan Sherbacow, CEO at Alder Fuels, foresees a future in which renewable fuels are the norm and not the exception. The issue isn’t lack of demand. Most of the aviation executives and operators I speak with are genuinely interested in low-carbon fuel.
What’s missing is a coordinated set of targeted economic incentives and regulatory guidelines that will jumpstart the era of broad SAF adaption. In California, operators can take advantage of state and federal incentives to lower the cost of buying SAF. Oregon and Washington reportedly have similar programs in the queue. Ideally, populous states on the East Coast will follow those examples and create their own programs to encourage wider use of SAF.
Net-zero carbon is the goal.
To be sure, SAF is not the only answer to mitigating GHG emissions. Improvements in airframe and powerplant technologies, along with more efficient modes of operation and targeted economic policies, are also part of the solution. In the near future, we’ll probably see more aircraft powered by electricity. Frankly, I look forward to taking short hops around town in an eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) vehicle. Further into the future, we may even see aircraft operating on hydrogen fuels.
But those alternatives are still largely in test mode. SAF, on the other hand, is here today and ready for use in jet aircraft. SAF is a drop-in fuel that requires no special modifications or additional infrastructure to store, deliver or use.
“The development and commercial deployment of SAF offers the most promising opportunity for reducing net GHG emissions from aviation operations,” according to Fueling the Future: Sustainable Aviation Fuel Guide, a report created by the Business Aviation Coalition for Sustainable Aviation Fuel.
In the U.S., SAF is now available mainly on the West Coast. But even if you’re operating from an airport that doesn’t provide SAF, you can still take advantage of it through a procedure called “book and claim,” which allows business jet operators to buy SAF at an airport where it isn’t physically available and receive credit for the reduction in carbon emissions.
I’ll leave you with this thought: Business aviation is an admired industry, and our hearts are in the right place. Our quest to achieve net-zero carbon emissions before 2050 is both noble and practical. Let’s use our leadership skills in concert with the global aviation community to get the job done. Right now, we need more states in the U.S. to join the cause and create programs that will spur wider adoption of SAF.