Boeing executive sees sustainable aviation fuel as ‘key to decarbonizing the airline industry’
DUBAI: The aviation industry is committed to decarbonizing, but with air travel tripling by 2050, alternative energies such as electricity and hydrogen will not solve the challenge; airlines need to replace old fleets, airports need to improve air traffic management structures and the industry needs to invest in sustainable aviation fuel.
However, there is a “tremendous amount of work” needed to drive SAF prices down, including more research and development and technology development on raw materials. Additionally, SAFs must be available to developing countries to have an impact beyond the largest aviation hubs. So says Robert Boyd, SAF expert and regional head of global sustainability policy and partnerships at aircraft manufacturer Boeing.
Appearing on ‘Frankly Speaking’, Arab News’ weekly current affairs talk show which dives deep into regional headlines and interviews top policy makers and business leaders, he said: ‘The good news is that there are several pillars of action that the aviation industry has at its disposal, and these are essentially working to meet the challenge of decarbonization over the next 28 years.
But given that “technological limitations do not allow hydrogen or electricity to power long-haul jumbo jets, SAF is key.”
As climate change takes center stage at the UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt, many are wondering if the aviation industry – currently responsible for 2.5% of global emissions – can really switch to green, or whether real progress is still decades away.
“In a world that is decarbonizing, if not all sectors are doing it at the same pace, then the relative magnitude of emissions from aviation or shipping makes it difficult to decarbonize,” he said. “It is therefore absolutely essential to decarbonise. There is a clear plan to achieve net zero by 2050. And it can be done through different pillars.
“The most obvious is a new plane. A new aircraft can be 20-25% more fuel efficient than its predecessor. »
Boyd called them “meaningful numbers,” pointing out that something like 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide can be saved per day using the best-in-class modern fleet. “That can be a few hundred thousand tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime. We therefore need to ensure that we use the most efficient modern fleet, which could generate a CO2 dividend of 15-25% globally. It’s not small. »
He cited operational efficiency as another opportunity for improvement. “Aviation has been on this for several years, even decades. Lots of easy operational improvements are already there. They’re built into the technology we use today,” he said.
Improvements in air traffic management offer yet another opportunity, but these solutions have limitations, according to Boyd, will not solve the problem of aviation emissions. “The main thing is to replace the energy source with something sustainable. This is where we put a particular focus on sustainable aviation fuel, as it does to do the heavy lifting on decarbonization through 2050.”
What about ideas of electricity or hydrogen as a potential substitute for kerosene? “These are really exciting, and we need to keep working on them, but they alone won’t solve the decarbonization challenge,” Boyd told “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen.
“Today, about three-quarters of all international emissions come from long-haul wide-body travel, and technological limitations don’t yet allow hydrogen or electricity in this space. Perhaps that will be the case in time, but today it is not a viable solution, so SAF is the key to the next 30 years.
The problem with SAF is of course the price: more than double the price of regular jet fuel, plus it’s in short supply. Figures for 2019 show that SAF accounted for just 0.1% of global jet fuel consumption, while the 2025 target was for 2% of global jet fuel to come from SAF.
Under these circumstances, should governments step in and subsidize, or will travelers be forced to pay with higher airfares?
“We speak very positively about sustainable aviation fuel and its potential. But that realism around where we are today is really important because it shows the degree of challenge ahead of us,” Boyd said. “What we will need is exponential growth. We are on track for approximately between 4 and 6 billion liters of SAF by 2025. But that still leaves a huge mountain to climb in terms of scaling up.
That said, Boyd acknowledged that there are big hurdles to scaling faster. “Certainly the cost. If SAF were cost parity today and available, all airlines would be using it. We need to benefit from the efficiency of scaling. It’s only just begun. There is an enormous amount of work, a kind of research and development and technology, purely technological work on the raw materials, which can bring down some of these prices,” he said.
He cited the United States as a good example where the Cut Inflation Act of 2022 “provides a huge incentive to develop green hydrogen and renewable fuels for (uses) both on the ground and in the air in particular. There’s a wave of supply coming in. And with that, I expect to see price improvements.
Boyd also said he was optimistic about SAF supplies. “There is an expansion of existing facilities and new facilities are being developed. Some of them are starting to come online now, 2022,” he said. “There will be more in 2023 through 2025 and beyond. We have visibility, with respectable granularity, through 2027 or so.”
We are talking about hydrogen planes, but hydrogen requires a large volume to store it, which would require a complete overhaul of an airplane. What does Boyd think about the potential of zero-emission fuel?
“Certainly there is a lot of work going on with hydrogen. There is still a lot to learn there. It’s fair to say we can do it,” he said. what happens if you have a drastically different plane Plus trying to totally redesign airports could change the whole efficiency of aviation in terms of restrictions on how you fuel a hydrogen plane There are already trillions of dollars worth of fuel infrastructure, either underground or in pipelines going to airports.
He described them as “really complex questions” that need answers before we can have any sort of sensible discussion about whether hydrogen is actually a realistic solution for aviation in the 2050-2100 timeframe. That’s “certainly not to say there shouldn’t be continued work there, but it really isn’t going to be the silver bullet.”
Does Boyd think the carbon reductions being talked about at COP27 and other big events will change the future of airports like NEOM Airport in Saudi Arabia? “If you’re building a brand new airport, (you have to) think 10 or 15 years into the future. What is likely to be feasible, plausible or actually implemented, for example, should you have an integrated hydrogen supply in the airport? It’s much easier to do this when you’re building the airport than a patchwork effort.
Boyd does not rule out the idea of modernizing the carriers, something in which Ryanair has invested around $200 million. He cited the example of the eco-demonstrator, a program by which Boeing buys an existing aircraft from an operator. “We set it up like an experimental lab, putting all sorts of technology on board to test anything and everything. Around 300 different technologies have been tested on the eco-demonstrator over the past decade. Many of them that you now see being introduced on airplanes today.
He also explained how Boeing is trying to make planes lighter and more fuel-efficient, and whether that will change the experience for travelers. “People may not appreciate the amount of carbon fiber in a Boeing in a Dreamliner or a 787. But it’s huge in terms of weight,” he said. “It’s incredibly strong and incredibly light, allows the right amount of flex, which can give better aero properties from the fenders.”
Currently, most aviation emissions come from developed countries, but future growth is expected to be in developing countries. Will they have the deep pockets of nations like the US and Europe to fund emissions cuts? “It gets to the heart of why decarbonization is essential,” Boyd said. “You have to decouple carbon dioxide from aviation itself.
“If we only focus on a few (advanced industrial) countries and think the job is done, then it’s not at all. The same momentum must translate into China, India, parts of Asia, all of Asia. There are fast growing areas like Indonesia, Bangladesh, South America and Africa. (It is important) to ensure that no country is left behind.