- A flurry of investments, policy changes and technological breakthroughs is giving a jolt of energy to the nascent market for sustainable aviation fuel.
- United Airlines and other companies started a $100 million venture capital fund to invest in the technology.
- It is a low-carbon alternative to traditional jet fuel made from crude oil.
Boeing said last week that it was doubling its use of sustainable fuel this year. New laws in Europe and the United States are designed to spur investment in the market. And after years of false starts, a handful of start-ups are receiving an influx of funding and expanding operations.
How Is It Made?
Sustainable aviation fuel is made from used cooking oil and agricultural waste. It produces up to 80 percent fewer planet-warming emissions than conventional jet fuel, according to some estimates. It is currently blended with fossil jet fuel, but the hope is that planes could eventually be powered exclusively with the alternative fuel. While advances have been made in electric planes, battery weight remains a problem for large aircraft. Sustainable jet fuel is seen by many as the most promising way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the aviation sector, which contributes more than 2 percent to global emissions each year
But today, almost no flights are powered by sustainable fuel because of supply and cost. Sustainable fuel can be as much as three times as expensive as conventional fuel. Even at United, the largest consumer of sustainable fuel in the United States, it accounted for less than one percent of its total fuel consumption last year. Scott Kirby, United’s chief executive, said in an interview that he wanted his airline to be a leader in sustainable fuels. His reasons, he said, are twofold: He believes that’s where the industry is headed, and he’s eager to play a role in reducing global emissions as the planet rapidly warms. “I am genuinely a nerd about climate change,” he said. “The implications are so dramatic…”
Only two companies make sustainable aviation fuel that is used by the major airlines at scale. World Energy, a U.S. company, has a plant in Los Angeles where it supplies United and other airlines and is building a new factory in Houston. Neste, a Finnish oil company, produces sustainable jet fuel in Europe. Gevo, a start-up based in Denver that is also making sustainable aviation fuel from ethanol, broke ground last year on a plant in South Dakota. “I’ve been doing renewables for 25 years, and I’m one of the more cynical people in the space,” said Patrick Gruber, the chief executive of Gevo.
New laws and policy efforts are also giving the industry momentum. The European Commission has proposed that by 2025 at least 2 percent of jet fuel in use be made from sustainable sources. By 2050, that figure would rise to more than 60 percent. The Inflation Reduction Act — President Biden’s signature climate legislation, which Congress passed last year — includes tax credits for cleaner jet fuel.
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