Dec 7, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Sustainable aviation fuels are ready for takeoff, report finds

Data: Rhodium Group; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Rhodium Group; Chart: Axios Visuals

"Sustainable" aviation fuels (SAFs), which are made from household solid waste, algae and other inputs, could dramatically cut emissions from air travel while also creating thousands of jobs, a new report finds.

Why it matters: Aviation is one of the hardest sectors to decarbonize because planes are typically in service for decades at a time and cannot be significantly reengineered to run on different fuels.

  • But SAFs, it turns out, can be used as blends with traditional aviation fuels, and eventually instead of them.

Zoom in: The new research, from the Rhodium Group, finds economic, technological and policy challenges to meeting the Biden administration’s aggressive targets for scaling up the use of SAFs in order to bring aviation emissions to net zero by 2050.

  • Currently, SAF production is just 4.5 million gallons per year, the report states.
  • The administration's goal is to bring that figure to 35 billion gallons by 2050.

The big picture: Right now, production capacity for SAFs is still limited, and while demand from airlines is growing, it is not yet prompting a sufficiently rapid expansion of the industry, the report states.

  • Major U.S. airlines with far-reaching decarbonization targets plan to rely significantly on expanding SAF use to meet them.
  • For example, American Airlines told Axios last year the largest contributor to meeting its net zero target would be SAF expansion.
  • Airlines are investing in SAF suppliers.
  • This would go along with improved efficiency, carbon offsets, electrification of ground equipment, and the introduction of battery-powered aircraft on shorter-haul routes.

What they're saying: "It will take more commitments from airlines, and at greater magnitudes, to really help spur SAF deployment," said Eric O’Rear, a senior analyst at Rhodium, in an email to Axios.

  • One barrier is cost: SAFs are currently too expensive for airlines to substitute them for traditional aviation fuels, O’Rear said.
  • "The current unsubsidized cost of SAF is on average 3-5 times more expensive than fossil jet fuel. Closing that gap will be critical for helping SAF to take off," he said.

What’s next: A SAF tax credit in the new climate law is aimed at helping close that gap, but more orders from airlines, technological advances, and other steps could also help bring costs down, the report states.

  • O’Rear said "hundreds of thousands" of jobs could be created by scaling up SAFs to the point where aviation would be fully decarbonized.
  • However, each SAF technology would have a different jobs footprint, depending on how it is manufactured and transported.
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