Sustainable Aviation Fuels Prepare for Takeoff in Washington State

March 13, 2019 By , ,

March 13, 2019
By Kendra Seymour

Photo: Alaska Airlines. Pictured: Fueling a flight powered with a 20 percent blend of biofuel made from wood waste at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 2016.

My colleagues Megan Boutwell, Jim Mladenik, and I attended the first-ever Washington Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) Summit last week in Seattle. The summit was hosted by Earth Day Northwest 2020 and presented by Boeing, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and the Port of Seattle. Washington Governor and U.S. Presidential Candidate Jay Inslee even made an appearance at the summit, lending the support of his climate-focused governorship and presidential campaign to the SAF push. The summit promised to bring together “Washington’s most innovative industries to develop a local supply chain of clean and sustainable fuels for aviation,” and conference-goers heard from “national leaders on engaging and aligning the entire sustainable fuels value chain.” Today we offer highlights from the SAF Summit.

Background – How did we get here?

This summit took place at a time when Washington is making lots of headlines for climate policy. Last year, the Port of Seattle announced its commitment to using ten percent SAF at the port by 2028 with that blend increasing to 50 percent by 2050. In his remarks, Port Commissioner Ryan Calkins highlighted additional efforts being made by Washington state actors, including:

  • The Port of Seattle developing a model for SAF to be adopted by airports around the world.
  • Governor Inslee staking his presidential campaign on climate policy, including SAF.
  • Washington State’s current legislature which is inclined toward renewables.
  • Pacific Northwest industry partners capable of making wide-spread SAF a reality.
  • Academic partners at Washington State University (WSU) leading the conversation around SAF.
  • Airline partners committed to using SAF when it becomes more viable.

Against this backdrop, the Port’s highest priority at the moment is passing the Washington Clean Fuels Standard (HB 1110), which passed the Washington State House this week and is now on to the Senate.

In his opening keynote remarks, former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus highlighted the ways that the U.S. Navy has been at the forefront of the transition of fuels from fossil to sustainable. During Mabus’ tenure, the Navy took a number of steps to advance the biofuels cause. The USS Nimitz, for example, held a demonstration during which the carrier and her squadron of aircraft sailed and flew on a 50/50 blend of sustainable and fossil fuels without any changes to engines or settings and without any noticeable difference in performance. The Navy also celebrated Earth Day in 2010 by flying an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet powered by a 50/50 biofuel blend. Finally, during Secretary Mabus’ time at the helm, the Navy set a goal to consume 50 percent of its shore facilities’ electricity needs from renewable sources. Now, Navy bases run on 60 percent sustainable energy. The Secretary suggested that the Port of Seattle can follow suit, achieving successful operations while incorporating more sustainable fuels.

Market Forces

One theme we heard over and over again at the summit was that SAF must be supported by market forces in order for its use to be widespread. In fact, Tony Gonchar of Delta Air Lines stated more than once that the three key factors for SAF success in the commercial space are “cost, cost, and cost.” Secretary Mabus cited taxpayer savings along the magnitude of $400 million that came from the shift to sustainable energy on all Navy bases, but he acknowledged that transportation fuels are harder to transition, and the Navy was a big enough market force to get things rolling on its own. He suggested that ports and corporate fleets (as opposed to commercial fleets) can help push SAF forward. Kai Sorenson of Epic Fuels concurred with Secretary Mabus on this point, highlighting the fact that drop-in fuels like SAF make a lot of sense at the corporate jet aviation level in part because of their fixed-base operator (FBO) infrastructure.[1] Finally, Secretary Mabus also claimed SAF is good for corporations’ bottom lines because companies on the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices have tended to trade better than the market trend. Market forces may not yet have pushed SAF to commercial viability, but there are innovative inroads.

Policy Forces

Markets likely won’t push the shift from fossil to sustainable fuels on their own; policy-based incentives will be required. Jim Lane from Biofuels Digest discussed the ins and outs of current carbon-reduction policies at the SAF Summit. According to Lane, California’s low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) program has been more successful than the federal renewable fuel standard (RFS) in sending the right market signals to increase low-CI fuel production. Lane said that with the right price signal and project availability – neither of which is in place today – the Ports of Portland and Seattle could replace 50 percent of their fuel with available renewables. The keys to making this low-carbon market work, according to Lane, are stabilized policy, mature technologies, seriousness in tackling transport emissions, and better risk profiling for financing projects in sustainable energy.

Graham Noyes of the Low Carbon Fuels Coalition pointed out that the “great thing about a market-based policy is you don’t have to go get an appropriation every year.” Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech, also sang the praises of the LCFS, calling it beautiful because it sets a desired outcome – CI-reduction – without prescribing the solution and therefore remaining technology- and fuel-neutral. Dr. Holmgren is also a fan of the LCFS auditors who make the program’s success quantifiable and visible. When asked about government incentives, Dr. Holmgren said the most desirable government support for alternative fuels is funding at every stage until a fuel reaches commercialization. Once a variety of options are commercialized, incentives can be reduced or removed, and the market will decide which options are most viable.

Dr. Colin Murphy, Director of the National Center for Sustainable Transportation at the University of California Davis, offered some cautions for policy approaches. First, he cautioned that LCFS programs should be careful about including aviation fuels in the requirements for CI-reduction programs (rather than allowing aviation fuels to be opt-in participants), because the costs of these programs tend to be spread out over the entirety of the transportation industry. You don’t want credit prices to be driven up by the inclusion of aviation fuels only to have that credit price passed along to gasoline consumers. Those are two very different demographics, and that’s not the kind of market shift you want. Lastly, Dr. Murphy advocated taking indirect land use change seriously, even for feedstocks that are called “waste” or “residue.” There’s always a land-use change to be considered.

Dr. Philipp Stratmann, Vice President of Biofuels at Velocys, who is in the early stages of planning a municipal waste to jet fuel plant, suggests that policymakers should avoid divergent policies, be indiscriminate between who owns feedstocks, and allow mingled feedstocks. He also reminded aviation enthusiasts in the room that while “we love Jet,” to be successful in reducing emissions, you’ve got to be “technology-neutral” in policy and standards. This approach de-risks the revenue streams and projects, lending each project to higher leverage and bringing up more fuels more quickly.

Finally, Rob Boyd offered insight from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which represents most of the commercial airlines in the world. According to Boyd, all the airlines which are part of IATA have already set their own climate goals, including their goal decrease emissions by at least 1.5% each year, and they’ve been successful to date, decreasing emissions by 2.3%. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is another industry goal to halve the industry’s CO2 footprint by 2050 compared to 2005. Given its global nature, aviation will move with global momentum toward a standard of sustainability because global development and deployment is what aviation does with systems, whether driven by policy mandates or market forces.

Feedstocks

Dr. Michael Wolcott, Director for WSU and MIT’s co-led Aviation Sustainability Center (ASCENT), offered an insightful presentation on feedstock availability and needs. Not all feedstocks are created the same; each has its own differences in distillate yields and uses. According to Dr. Wolcott, no single feedstock will yield the volume of SAF needed to make a significant impact – commercialized SAF will require the use of oilseeds, forest residues, solid waste, algae, and more. Other presenters agreed. For example, Bruce Comer of Ocean Park Advisors said lipids alone won’t cut it; biodiesel and renewable diesel will eat up all the waste oil lipid feedstock soon, leaving nothing for SAF. But there is hope: John Plaza, a sustainable fuels entrepreneur, sees a future in solid waste streams, calling them an “urban oilfield.” And according to Dr. Wolcott, forest residuals could be a wealth of opportunity even at current harvest levels.

Technology Advances

Beyond a variety of feedstocks, a variety of conversion and propulsion technologies will also be necessary to decarbonize aviation. Dr. Holmgren delivered an impassioned, inspiring, and impressive presentation about her company’s efforts to put an end to single-use carbon, enabling re-use (or recycling) of carbon instead. LanzaTech’s proprietary bacteria eat waste hydrogen and carbon off-gases, converting them into ethanol which can then be made into jet fuel. This jet fuel is cleaner burning, has no sulfur or aromatics, and has a higher energy density. The project has reached relevant scale and is considered economic, with pay-back within five years. In fact, their first commercial flight on jet fuel produced from ethanol derived from off-gas was in October 2018. Their ultimate goal is to go beyond relevant scale and reach relevant cost and relevant adoption. Fortunately, according to Dr. Holmgren, technology increases and advances exponentially rather than linearly. In the next few years, SAF will (hopefully) continue doubling its market share and volumes will become more meaningful.

Then there was Matt Knapp, Aero Chief Engineer at Zunum Aero, who offered these aeronautical statistics: some 80% of departures and 50% of aircraft emissions are from flights of 1,500 miles or less. This reality creates a strong market for Zunum Aero’s 6-12-seat ZA10 hybrid-to-all-electric aircraft which is scale- and range-independent and has low operating costs and very low to zero emissions. It operates at a cost of eight cents per seat mile with a max range of 700 miles, a max cruise speed of 340 miles per hour, and a take-off distance of just 2,200 feet. The ZA10 will begin widespread delivery starting in 2023. Zunum’s aims to bring commercial pricing to small low-to-zero-emissions aircraft for regional transit, and they’re hoping to extend their max range to 1,500 miles by 2035, making these planes even more viable. This solution comes at a time when door-to-door travel times on the ground are much worse than 50 years ago. According to Knapp, regional air travel can help thousands of communities without high-speed links. While larger airplanes drive routes to fewer hubs, smaller airplanes can make for more frequent flights, making those flights more convenient. (You can have one flight with 70 seats or ten flights with seven seats. The ten flights will be more convenient and more likely to be used.) Battery improvements will certainly be required to make this technology viable in the long run. In the meantime, liquid fuels will reign in aviation.

SAF Certification

Currently, there are no certification criteria for SAF. Several presenters highlighted the need to better define what is meant by “locally produced” and “sustainable.” Jason Rushton, the Government Solutions Manager for SICPA, spoke about maintaining trust in sustainable fuels. SICPA’s security inks and other technologies enable trust in government documents such as passports and currencies. They also provide proof of compliance for tax policy or cannabis tracking, and they protect certificates of authenticity to ensure certification labels are not counterfeit. According to Rushton, the challenges for certification and trust in the sustainable fuels supply chain are: false production declarations, substitution or blending, and flash sale. Block chain and nano-marking technology can help solve these issues by marking fuels and tracking sales without divulging proprietary info.

Conclusion

Presenters at the first-ever Washington SAF Summit seemed to be in agreement about the significant challenges to decarbonizing air transport. Electrification of this market is not expected to be commercially feasible for decades; meanwhile, IATA forecasts that air passenger numbers will double in the next two decades, with the greatest growth occurring in Asia. Currently, SAF costs significantly more to produce than fossil jet fuel due to the fact that sustainable feedstocks suitable for jet fuel production generally cost as much or more than finished fossil jet fuel. Since fuel represents more than half of an airline’s costs, an airline cannot pay significantly more for substantial volumes of SAF and continue to be price competitive with those who do not use SAF. Policies and regulations are necessary to level the competitive playing field between market participants. The Oregon CFP, California LCFS, and federal RFS are examples of regulations that help to do this, but caution is required to avoid laying off these costs inequitably.

[1] FBOs are like gas stations at the airport. For the larger airlines at the terminal, fuel gets to them via pipeline, but for corporate jets, fuels can be trucked into their smaller FBOs.

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