Air Travel Has a Future with Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Airlines are committed to reducing their carbon footprint, and sustainable aviation fuel is the only way they can do it and keep growing.

The aviation industry faces substantial challenges to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and improve environmental sustainability in the face of rapid growth. The International Air Transport Association expects the number of flights in 2019 to be 40 million worldwide, with growth in jet-fuel demand estimated at 3 billion gallons per year. Simultaneously, the industry has declared a desire to freeze emissions and achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020.

Fuel is the largest cost for the aviation industry, and while SAF is relatively new and now coming into real market conditions, its adoption will enable the airline industry to move away from the petroleum sources upon which the world has up to now relied. In addition, the United States department of defense has explored sources of sustainable biofuel to offset dependence on foreign energy sources.

 

Sustainable flying is a freedom that extends to everyone.

Flying Green Days and Sustainable Aviation Fuel

By Dr. Pat Gruber, CEO, Gevo, Inc.

Flying Green Days are events held at airports around the country where sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is blended with the petroleum-based jet fuel in the fuel-delivery system for some airlines. This allows the airlines and infrastructure providers to show that SAF really is a “drop-in” and it also allows everyone to feel good that they are taking steps in the right direction. But it’s more than that. These Flying Green Days give a thin slice of travelers a glimpse of the future. It’s a brief glance, and most likely feels less meaningful since many of those airplane seats are occupied by people who would be flying whether it’s a Flying Green Day or not. But the fact that these days happen at all is a shift in the world’s thinking.

The aviation industry is enormous, complex, and critically important to our modern lives. Have you ever thought about aviation and transportation as a concept of freedom? Freedom of movement. Freedom to go from one city to another, or from one country to another across sometimes vast distances. It’s freedom to know we can hop on a plane and get anywhere we need to be—or want to be. Flying is a major part of our lives—whether in business, visiting family and friends, just getting away for some rest and relaxation, or opening our minds with travel. 

Flying is a big part of our economy too. Not many countries have aircraft industries, but ours does. Think of the major airlines, and the staffing they do, both on the ground and in the air, and then consider the infrastructure that goes into supplying the flights of one airline in one airport, and then multiply that out by the numbers of airlines and airports served. And then there’s the cargo side of aviation as well. All told, the aviation industry provides more than 10 million jobs in the U.S., and $1.5 trillion in economic activity. This is an industry that does a lot of things very well, changes the quality of many people’s lives, and has an amazing safety record.

The industry as a whole also has voluntarily decided to cut its greenhouse gas emissions aggressively. Realistically it’s a good idea—if they hadn’t suggested it more and more stringent regulations for emissions would certainly be coming. The IATA has committed to capping carbon dioxide emissions in 2020, and cutting CO2 emissions by 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2050.

It’s the right thing to do. But there is a business aspect as well: If regulations appear at a port, city, state, or national boundary, the cost of compliance could be prohibitive for airlines. The thing is, technologies and methods do exist to reduce CO2 emissions. So reducing emissions is good for business and all of us as it relates to the environment. We’ve all seen the “flight shaming” that is catching on. I get that it makes sense to ask, “Do I really need to take this airplane flight to get where I need to go, or is there an alternative?” I make that judgment based on time and cost. Most folks I know travel on planes when they need to. I figure that flight shaming is primarily targeted to those places where flying is completely discretionary. I believe that flying for us mortals is frequently necessary. Flight shaming might raise awareness for GHG emissions, but it isn’t going to stop airline travel, nor should it. 

At Gevo, we have a different view as to how to solve the problems. We know that SAF can be produced and it is effective at reducing GHGs. The issue is that it costs more than jet fuel made from inexpensive oil. So how does that cost gap get bridged? Airlines, are caught in a squeeze. Fuel is likely their biggest expense. Raising prices for consumers doesn’t work well, unless everyone did it at once, but there is the problem of rising ticket prices. That doesn’t seem like a great way to solve issues, those most impacted would be those who may have less income. But, consumers, in some cases may be willing to pay a premium if they knew for sure that their extra dollars really were going to help solve GHG issues—this is where tracking of sustainable fuels becomes important. We are on it. There is a societal benefit to GHG reduction. Could tax breaks for airlines who use SAF be of benefit? Maybe a reallocation of subsidy from the oil industry to airlines who use SAF could help? One thing is clear. Customers, those of us who fly, who need to fly, need to push for solutions. SAF is piece of the solution.

SAF has potential to be cost effective, especially when the GHG reductions are valued. That means that it will be possible in the future to fly cost effectively using SAF. That’s good for airlines and people who fly. Producers like us need to grow to be able to achieve economies of scale to make SAF cost effective. Airlines need to know that it is wanted and valuable. There is hope to reduce and ultimately eliminate fossil-based GHGs from the system. It can be done. We are working to do it.