Air travel is booming, with the number of air passengers set to double over the next twenty years. Aviation demand is particularly evident in in the Asia Pacific region, where growing economic wealth is opening new travel opportunities.
Aviation accounts for around 15% of global oil demand growth up to 2030 in the IEA’s New Policies Scenario, a similar amount to the growth from passenger vehicles. Such a rise means that aviation will account for 3.5% of global energy related CO2 emissions by 2030, up from just over 2.5% today, despite ongoing improvements in aviation efficiency.
This expansion underscores the need for the aviation industry to tackle its carbon emissions. For now, liquid hydrocarbon fuels like jet fuel remain the only means of powering commercial air travel. Therefore, along with a sustained improvement in energy efficiency, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) such as aviation biofuels are key to reducing aviation’s carbon emissions.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which governs international aviation, has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 50% from their 2005 level by 2050. Blending lower carbon SAF with fossil jet fuel will be essential to meeting this goal. This is reflected in the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), which anticipates biofuels reaching around 10% of aviation fuel demand by 2030, and close to 20% by 2040.
The aviation industry demonstrates a strong commitment to sustainable aviation fuel use
The first flight using blended biofuel took place in 2008. Since then, more than 150,000 flights have used biofuels. Only five airports have regular biofuel distribution today (Bergen, Brisbane, Los Angeles, Oslo and Stockholm), with others offering occasional supply. But the centralised nature of aviation fuelling, where less than 5% of all airports handle 90% of international flights, means SAF availability at a small number of airports could cover a large share of demand.
Another indication of aviation’s commitment to growing SAF use is the agreement of long-term offtake agreements between airlines and biofuel producers. These now cumulatively cover around 6 billion litres of fuel. Meeting this demand will require further production facilities, and some airlines have directly invested in aviation biofuel refinery projects.
Still, aviation biofuel production of about 15 million litres in 2018 accounted for less than 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption. This means that significantly faster market development is needed to deliver the levels of SAF production required by the aviation industry and keep on track with the requirements of the SDS.
Technology development is essential to increase aviation biofuel availability
Currently, five aviation biofuel production pathways are approved for blending with fossil jet kerosene. However, only one – hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids synthetic paraffinic kerosene (HEFA-SPK) fuel – is currently technically mature and commercialised. Therefore, HEFA‑SPK is anticipated to be the principal aviation biofuel used over the short to medium term.
Meeting 2% of annual jet fuel demand from international aviation with SAF could deliver the necessary cost reduction for a self-sustaining aviation biofuel market thereafter. Meeting such a level of demand requires increased HEFA-SPK production capacity. If met entirely by new facilities, approximately 20 refineries would be required. This could entail investment in the region of $10 billion. Although significant, this is relatively small compared to fossil fuel refinery investment of $60 billion in 2017 alone.
Ongoing research and development is needed to support the commercialisation of novel advanced aviation biofuels which can unlock the potential to use agricultural residues and municipal solid wastes. These feedstocks are more abundant and generally cost less than the waste oils and animal fats commonly used by HEFA-SPK, and can therefore facilitate greater SAF production. Furthermore, synthetic fuels produced from renewable electricity, CO2 and water via Power-to-Liquid processes may offer an alternative fuel source for aviation in the long term.
Improved aviation biofuel cost competitiveness with fossil jet kerosene is also needed
SAF are currently more expensive than jet fuel, and this cost premium is a key barrier to their wider use. Fuel cost is the single largest overhead expense for airlines, accounting for 22% of direct costs on average, and covering a significant cost premium to utilise aviation biofuels is challenging.
The competitiveness of SAF depends on its production cost relative to that of fossil jet kerosene (which varies with crude oil price). For all biofuels obtaining an economic feedstock supply is fundamental to achieve competitiveness, as feedstocks are the major determinant of production costs. For HEFA-SPK economies of scale could be realised by refineries designed for continuous production.
In the long term, airlines may include SAF consumption cost premiums within ticket costs. At current prices and today’s fleet average energy efficiency, the additional cost per passenger for a 15% blend of HEFA may not be high in comparison with other elements that influence ticket prices, such as seating class, the time of ticket purchase and taxation. However, due to the competiveness of the aviation industry customer price sensitivity is a core consideration for airlines.
Policy measures are crucial to stimulate sustainable aviation fuel demand
Impressive progress has been made in the utilisation of SAF since the first biofuel flight ten years ago. However, to fulfil aviation biofuels’ potential to reduce the climate impact of growing air transport demand, further technological development and improved economics are needed.
There is a key role for policy frameworks at this crucial early phase of SAF industry development. Without a supportive policy landscape, the aviation industry is unlikely to scale up biofuel consumption to levels where costs fall and SAF become self-sustaining.
Subsidising the consumption of SAF envisaged in the SDS scenario in 2025, around 5% of total aviation jet fuel demand, would require about $6.5 billion of subsidy (based on closing a cost premium of USD 0.35 litre between HEFA-SPK and fossil jet kerosene at USD 70/bbl oil prices). This is far below the support for renewable power generation in 2017, which reached $143 billion.
Other policy measures that could support SAF market development include:
- Financial de-risking measures for refinery project investments (e.g. grants, loan guarantees).
- Measures to provide guaranteed SAF offtake, e.g. mandates, targets and public procurement.
- Other mechanisms that close the cost gap between SAFs and fossil jet fuel e.g. carbon pricing.
Countries have more control over policy support for domestic than international aviation, and the introduction of national policy mechanisms to facilitate SAF consumption is gathering pace. The United States, the European Union, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Norway have all recently established policy mechanisms which will support the use of aviation biofuels. To gain the confidence of policy makers and the general public, such support will need to be linked to robust fuel sustainability criteria.
The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), scheduled to be introduced in 2021, will be the principal mechanism to meet the ICAO’s long-term decarbonisation targets. SAF consumption and the purchase of carbon offsets are the two principal means to achieve CORSIA compliance, with the relative attractiveness of these to the aviation industry dependent on their cost per tonne of CO2 emissions mitigated.
(The columnist is Energy Analyst with the International Energy Agency)