“I don’t think there has ever been in history this great and deep a level of interagency collaboration,” said James Spaeth, system development and integration program manager with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office. Speaking during Thursday’s online 2021 Business Aviation Sustainability Summit Kick-Off, he described the response by his agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Transportation following the White House’s Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) Grand Challenge issued earlier this month. The three agencies issued a memo of understanding to work together to develop a roadmap for the expansion of SAF production to meet certain milestones on the path to aviation decarbonization.
Hosted by the SAF Coalition—an industry umbrella organization consisting of NBAA, NATA, EBAA, CBAA, IBAC, HAI, and CAAFI—the event brought together policymakers from the FAA, DOE, and DOT to describe their efforts in the SAF arena. SAF Coalition chairman and NATA president and CEO Tim Obitts reiterated the need to help aircraft operators understand that SAF is a drop-in replacement for conventional jet-A.
“The specification that sustainable aviation fuel is approved under effectively treats it as jet-A,” said Kevin Welsh, executive director of the FAA’s office of environment and energy, adding that the agency has been working with SAF since 2006 in coordination with ASTM for its certification. “Once you meet the D-7566 specification, that fuel is jet-A.” He explained that is important not only for its use in aircraft but in all of the infrastructure and safety requirements around it. That includes all airport storage, pipeline, and delivery systems that would otherwise require replacement or redundancy to handle any different-specification fuel.
Spaeth said that there are currently seven approved pathways for the production of SAF using a variety of feedstocks that do not compete with food or animal feed use and that focus instead on wastes and byproducts. For example, he said that while the majority of corn is grown for feed, SAF production will use the leftover stalks.
He expects that due to DoE grants and industry collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), there should be at least another four or five approved pathways for production by 2030, and he said his agency is working with producers to leverage existing infrastructure to reduce their capital expenditures. He also acknowledged the advances in other forms of power such as electricity, hydrogen, and fuel cells, which will eventually have their own roles to play.
Asked about the potential for 100 percent SAF usage, Spaeth explained that the agency is conducting research with its partners to develop replacement aromatics, which are found naturally in petroleum-based fuels and are required for engine seals and to ensure the integrity of the aircraft’s fuel storage systems.
One of the major hurdles regarding the adoption of SAF remains the cost at the pump. “We recognize that right now there is a gap between the price of conventional jet fuel and [SAF], the latter being much more expensive,” said Carol Petsonk, principal deputy assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs with the DoT. “There are a number of ways to bridge that gap, but one of them is to use the power of the tax code to incentivize the production and blending and use of [SAF].”
This so-called “blender’s tax credit” has been eagerly endorsed by the aviation industry, and is under consideration in Congress. “Our assessment is there is quite a bit of interest in the tax code being used in this way to encourage the achievement of better and more measurable results,” Petsonk said.
Welsh concluded by referring to the decarbonization goals that have been announced by the aviation sector. "You've got to be leaders and if you are going to actually follow through on those commitments then this is a great way to lead, to show the demand [for SAF] is there," he told the audience. "I know dollars matter, so that's the bottom line, but at the end of the day if your company is out there making ambitious commitments about how green you are, and if you are operating these aircraft, this is a really important way to demonstrate that."
NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen noted that sustainability discussions will be front and center next month at the organization’s annual convention and exhibition in Las Vegas, while Obitts added that SAF will be available at Las Vegas Harry Reid International and Henderson Executive airports to fuel aircraft arriving for the show.