Brentan Alexander, Ph.D.

Scientist / Entrepreneur / Engineer

Sustainable Aviation Fuels: Ready for Takeoff

The last five years have been busy ones in the sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry: Major airlines are making investments in SAF projects designed to lower greenhouse gas emissions. United put up $30M to invest in biofuels pioneer and NER client Fulcrum BioEnergy, Delta committed to purchase 10M gallons of renewable jet fuel annually from Gevo on top of $2M invested elsewhere, Southwest signed up for 3M gallons per year from Red Rock Biofuels, and Qantas announced AU$50M over the next 10 years to jumpstart the SAF industry as a whole.

Why the interest? They see the writing on the wall: With aviation representing over 12% of global transport CO2 emissions, and growing each year, flyers are reporting that climate concerns are leading  them to fly lesstake years off from flying, or stop flying altogether.  Examples abound, like the climate activist Greta Thunberg who publicly opted to take a boat to the UN rather than fly. Without action, airlines will see their customers flee, governments intervene, or both.

SAFs, which are less carbon intensive than their petroleum-based counterparts, represent a promising solution for the airlines. How? They utilize next-generation technologies, literally turning wastes, including household trash and agricultural byproducts, into renewable transport fuels. These fuels, on a full lifecycle basis, emit a small fraction of the CO2 as compared to fossil-derived fuels, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of the flying public.

The investments so far from the airlines are a step in the right direction, but reducing airline emissions will take a significantly larger commitment. $30M from United to support Fulcrum is good, but Fulcrum’s next plant will take an order of magnitude more capital to build, and the 33M gallons of fuel it will produce annually is just 0.2% of the 18B gallons of fuels U.S. airlines consumed in 2018. Delta’s 10M gallon commitment to Gevo is a similar fraction of a percent of overall demand. Airlines surely don’t (and shouldn’t) need to be the sole financing source for all the capital necessary to help SAFs reach scale, but a serious increase of investment would multiply the number of projects coming to market and start making a real dent. 

Airlines should be stepping up because it’s also smart business. Direct investment in SAFs is a natural hedge against fuel costs. As fuel prices rise, producers sell SAFs to the airlines and simultaneously generate revenue for the airlines as investors, offsetting those increasing costs. And purchase agreement promises are low-risk offerings: If SAF projects fail to deliver, the airline has no obligation or exposure, but if they succeed, airlines get low-impact fuels (likely at a discount to the market), and a PR heyday.  Fliers also want it: I recently shared the stage at VERGE 2019 with Sean Newsum, director of environmental strategy for Boeing, who spoke about the Fortune 500 customers whose employees fly many millions of miles annually but would love to fly on SAFs to reduce their organization’s carbon footprint (of which business travel is typically the largest contributor). 

These SAF investments also turn out to work. Long-term jet fuel purchase contracts from strategic partners like Delta and Southwest are instrumental in convincing other capital providers to invest in the construction of next-generation SAF projects, which in turn allows the projects to scale up and better serve the aviation industry (and others). Direct equity investments, as with United and Fulcrum, are even more impactful in moving projects forward, and strategic partnerships further validate new businesses and models to traditional financiers. 

It’s significantly more impactful than the other path airlines have chosen: purchased offsets to counteract their emissions. From JetBlue to Air France, airlines worldwide are tripping over each other to announce full carbon-offsetting for their flights. These offsets, however, have a troubled relationship with actual impact. Offsets are a dereliction of duty that do little to address the underlying emissions issue, and are therefore unlikely to placate activists and governments looking to limit overall emissions. To truly address emissions head on, airlines should continue to grow the investments and commitments they have started to make in SAFs.

SAF investments by airlines represent a significant vote of confidence in next-generation technology, which directly reduces the carbon intensity of the industry, no offsets needed. Pie in the sky? Perhaps. But the industry best placed to reach for the stars is the one that lives life at 30,000 feet.