No one thinks the aviation industry’s target of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century will be easy. In fact, some argue that it’s not fast enough in the face of the global climate crisis, but a flurry of investment in new technologies and the new U.S. incentives are creating tangible progress toward achieving that net-zero target.
“It’s going to take a lot of work but it’s absolutely achievable,” said Peter Hearding, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Policy, International Affairs & Environment, during the JetBlue Ventures Sustainability in Travel Tech Summit in San Francisco Wednesday. He pointed to the agency’s aviation climate action plan published last year as how net-zero emissions will be achieved.
Hearding’s optimism was in good company. Executives from Blade, JetBlue Airways, and aviation industry tech firms including battery developer Electric Power Systems and Universal Hydrogen, made similar comments. But there were concerns that current U.S. policy, despite the FAA’s action plan, falls short of the challenge.
The Inflation Reduction Act that President Biden signed into law in August provides the first U.S. incentives for sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. It includes both blender and producer tax credits that expire in 2027, or in just five years. The law also includes incentives for the development of hydrogen and other renewable energy sources.
“It’s great but it’s not enough,” Air Company Chief Technology Officer Stafford Sheehan said at the summit. Air Company produces synthetic SAF — also known as e-kerosene — and ethanol from carbon dioxide, and the issue it faces is the time it takes to build a production facility and begin producing the fuels at scale. Air Company, which has SAF off-take agreements with JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and several “yet to be announced” airlines, only anticipates beginning deliveries in significant volumes in 2027 — or the year the Inflation Reduction Act incentives expire.
Sheehan added that he is not sure legislators fully understand the length of time it takes to build the kind of facility needed to produce SAF at scale.
Airlines are signing new SAF offtake agreements in record numbers. Alaska Airlines, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, and Ryanair have all inked deals with suppliers that range from Gevo to Shell and Austria’s OMV in recent months. The aim is multi-fold from looking “green” in the eyes of the public (even though the fuels, in most cases, will not begin arriving for years) to a legitimate aim to meet emissions reductions targets and, in the case of Europe, meet minimum SAF requirements that are expected to begin in 2025. But, despite all the new agreements, only two companies are producing SAF at scale today — Neste and World Energy — and volumes are a fraction of a percent of total global aviation fuel use.
“We’re higher than the industry average but it’s still not enough,” JetBlue Director of Sustainability Sara Bogdan said on the airline’s current SAF supply. The airline, according to its 2021 sustainability report, used 442,529 gallons of the fuels that year, or just 0.6 percent of the 696 million gallons of aviation fuel it consumed.
All of the new agreements, Bogdan said, have actually driven up the cost of SAF just as airlines are desperate for the low-carbon fuels. This price inflation comes as the fuels already command a premium of roughly two to five times the cost of a gallon of jet fuel. “It’s been a supply and cost issue,” she said.
Sheehan said he believes the European Union’s policy, mandating a minimum amount of SAF usage, is actually better than the U.S. policy for producers because it guarantees a market. The European rules, which are part of the larger Fit for 55 decarbonization plan, do not expire but only ramp up as the century continues.
The cost and supply imbalance for SAF is one reason why JetBlue, and most in the airline industry, are also eager about new technologies. Electric, hybrid-electric, and hydrogen-powered aircraft that will begin coming to market later this decade could dramatically reduce emissions in certain segments of airline operations.
Nathan Millecam, the CEO of Electric Power Systems, said all-electric aircraft are likely to dominate in the small size and short flight end of the market. For example, a nine-seat electric plane could perform well on routes of up to around 100 miles with operating costs as much as 40 percent lower than a fossil fuel-powered aircraft. That cost advantage could significantly change “the whole economic case” in these markets, Millecam added. Longer routes, say 150-200 miles, could become the domain of hybrid-electric aircraft that run primarily on battery power but carry aviation fuel to meet reserve requirements.
“Most people are coming to the conclusion that optional hybrid electric [technology] is really the solution,” he said. This is the conclusion that Heart Aerospace recently came to when it dropped its all-electric ES-19 turboprop in favor of the hybrid-electric ES-30 that can fly further with more passengers.
Eviation’s all-electric Alice made its maiden sortie on September 27. The nine-seat plane, for which both Cape Air and DHL Express have commitments, flew for 8 minutes on its first flight. The aircraft is one of several new electric and hybrid-electric models that are in development and aim to begin carrying passengers in the next few years.
Hydrogen fuel cells are being adapted for even larger regional aircraft. Universal Hydrogen plans to begin test flights on a 50-seat De Havilland Dash 8-300 by the end of the year, Head of Commercial for the Americas & East Asia JF Tessier said. He sees a future where hydrogen, both as electric fuel cells and as a direct fuel itself, will play a significant role decarbonizing the larger regional and next generation of mainline narrowbody aircraft — say Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 sized planes — that fly short- and medium-haul routes.
For large wide-bodies and long, intercontinental routes, however, SAF is likely the best solution to reduce or eliminate emissions, Tessier said.
“We can’t ignore the [aircraft] technology we have today,” Bogdan said, referring to the fact that most aircraft built now will still be flying in 2050 when the industry aims to produce net-zero emissions. “We believe sustainable aviation fuel is going to be the most rapid means to rapidly reduce our emissions.”