Podcast: Will The Business Aviation Industry Meet Its Sustainability Goals?

The need for a public discussion of business aviation’s sustainability efforts has never been higher as protesters become more active in their dissent. Elise Fox, senior manager of sustainability solutions for World Fuel Services, shares insights on sustainable aviation fuel and other efforts the industry is taking to meet its goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Hosted by Molly McMillin, managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network.

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Rush Transcript

Molly: Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, wherever you are in the world today, and welcome to our BCA podcast. I'm Molly McMillin, managing editor for Business Aviation at Aviation Week, and I'm here today with Elise Fox, senior manager for Sustainability Solutions with World Fuel.

Today we'll be discussing sustainable aviation fuel and how the business aviation industry plans to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Thank you all for joining us today, and thank you, Elise, for being here.

Elise: Thank you for having me, Molly. I'm really excited to be here.

Molly: Before we get started, just a reminder that you can subscribe to the BCA podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

So, Elise, you have history in energy, technology and sustainability, but you've recently joined the business aviation industry. Can you tell us a little bit about you and what you do there?

Elise: Absolutely. My background, I've been in the renewables field for about 20 years now. So, I have my bachelor's in chemistry and a master's and PhD in material science. My work started in the production of ultra clean fuels. And back then we also used to call them alternative fuels instead of renewable fuels or sustainable fuels that we call them now. So, I did purification of hydrogen feed streams for bio-based alcohols, but also the production of ultra-low sulfur diesel and jet fuel.

From there I went to work at a national lab for about 15 years where I continued to do also clean fuels production, but I also looked at the broader realm of energy production and how policy affected the deployment of both. I worked for myself for a few years and then I joined World Fuel last year. So, I am new to the aviation industry, but I'm not new to sustainability.

My role is a little bit unique.  I work for our sustainability advisory, which is under the land division World Kinect Energy Services. But I am targeted specifically with helping our aviation clients, whether that be BGA, commercial, and I even help support our supply team as well.

We help, particularly with BGA, we help introduce them to the things in sustainability that they need to know. And it all starts with measuring their footprint, understanding what that is, helping BGA clients prepare plans for decarbonization.

But the really interesting part is when we get to help them implement those plans that they develop. So whether that be renewable fuels, helping them with electrification, energy efficiency projects, and even with the sourcing of clean energy for their other building operations.

Molly: That sounds like you have a very interesting background. So, tell us why this topic is so important? Along with that,  at EBACE this year, protestors chained themselves to business jets and otherwise. They're becoming more and more public in their opposition, and they have a variety of arguments. I saw you at a panel discussion recently and you mentioned something that I thought was very interesting. You said that you think the industry is going to meet its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, and I believe you also said you just recently came to that conclusion. It's a big goal. What gives you that confidence? And as a side to this, why is this topic so important?

Elise: Well, the real challenge of the aviation industry is the nature of aviation itself. It's a very difficult and hard to abate sector. There's a reason we use petroleum-based fuels in planes, right? You get a lot of energy into a small volume and that we know how to handle safely and effectively. And that's really where the challenge for aviation itself lies, is trying to figure out alternative solutions that will help remove the carbon content of those fuels.

And the reality is there are changing tides, and all industries, not just aviation, are starting to pay a lot more attention to their emissions and what that means, and there's a real drive to decarbonize. BGA in particular is a very visible sector. So, we all need to work together to try to understand what our emissions are and do what we can to reduce them.

Particularly from the BGA side, I find that there are challenges just with educational barriers, and that's one of the things that we really help address within the sustainability advisory. We work with our BGA clients, whether it be flight departments, FBOs or airports, to understand what their emissions are and to find ways to help reduce them.

And those educational barriers are really, really important to address because you can't control what you don't measure and you're not going to measure what you don't understand. So, it's kind of a stepwise process. We've got to crawl before we can walk and walk before we can run kind of thing. And it really is going to take an all of the above approach. We hear a lot about SAF (sustainable aviation fuels). And SAF I do believe is going to be our most important tool for helping decarbonize aviation.

But the reality is we have other levers that we can choose to use now such as energy efficiency and electrification in particular to help us reach those goals. So, it is just trying to get the BGA community understand what their options are and that they have more options than SAF right now.

We are collectively working to meet those goals. I've been in the renewable fuels industry for a long time, and I can honestly say I don't think I've ever seen momentum like I've seen in the past several years for any particular fuel. And it is really, really exciting. It's a very exciting time. And part of the reason we have that momentum is because of not only government incentives, but there's public pressure and there's an increasing awareness of everyone across the board, not just the aviation sector on climate change and what it means and how it's going to impact their business.

So, when I said that I think we'll meet our goals of 2050 for net-zero for aviation, I think we'll meet them, but I'm not saying it's going to be easy, cheap, or painless in the process. But we have a lot, like I said, we've got a lot of levers that we can pull to make that happen, and it's a really, really exciting time.

Molly: I think some people think that sustainable aviation fuel is the biggest lever, but the volume of SAF production is low. First, do you agree that it's kind of the biggest piece of this and how do we ramp up that production to meet what the market will demand?

Elise: I absolutely agree that SAF is going to be our biggest lever, but even by, I add our projections, it's only about 65% of the solution. So there's a whole bunch of other things that we can use as well. Under the SAF challenges, we have a goal to get to 3 billion gallons of production by 2030, and then 35 billion gallons by 2050. That first 3 billion gallons is going to be hard and it's going to be the hardest and most difficult by far.

So, I want people to understand that and not get discouraged. If you just look at the recent major announcements, and these are really, these are from big players. So Phillips, Neste, Marathon, Valero, World Energy, we're about 2 billion gallons by 2030. We have another billion gallons that we have to pull together. But those facilities are not greenfield facilities. They're mostly retrofits of existing petroleum production sites or petroleum refineries.

There are a lot of new players that are coming onto the field, particularly for things like alcohol to jets and power to liquids that are going to have a real impact. But since those are greenfield type facilities, they're going to take longer. It's going to be closer to 2030 until we actually see them online and producing.

So just think about the bigger holistic picture too. We're trying to do what we can to support some of those newer upstarts and players by looking at things such as offtake agreements. We have a equity investment, Fulcrum who's doing municipal solid waste to jet. So, we're trying to do what we can on our own part to also spur the industry.

But I'd like you to think too, that even the recent announcements that we had in the news are going to double production from last year. Within the past month, Calumet Montana Renewables came online and they're already said they're the largest producer of the U.S. and within the next six months they produce at the levels they're supposed to, we will have doubled production from last year, from 2022. So, these are all very positive movements that I want people to not forget about, so they don't get lost in the fray.

And then another thing that I like to remind people, I try to bring up sometimes a comparison to the renewable diesel industry. The SAF production facilities that we have today are mostly hemp-based, but well, they largely are, but they're from facilities that produce renewable diesel. So, they only produce about 10% SAF.

A couple of facilities like World Energy have said publicly that they're doing upgrades to their system. So, a larger percentage of the fuel that they produce will shift to SAF from renewable diesel. And when you look at the successes of the renewable diesel industry, what they've been able to do within the past three to four years, it's really pretty amazing. They've doubled production already. They're supposed to double production again by the end of next year, and they're looking at maybe 16 facilities by the end of this year that are producing renewable diesel and only a couple of those are producing SAF.

So, as we start to see a levelization of its census across the board, for example, a lot of the monetary policy, the tax incentives, particularly because of the LCFS in California have really encouraged and pushed renewable diesel. But the IRA has been instrumental in helping levelize the field between SAF and renewable diesel production. So, I suspect that we'll start to see some of these facilities that are not producing SAF will start to produce SAF, even if it's on a small percentage basis of their overall production.

And I haven't even touched on all the levers, the other levers that we have to pull. So, looking at ethanol production in the U.S. Today we produce about 17 billion gallons of ethanol in the Midwest alone. And it takes roughly two gallons of ethanol to produce one gallon of jet fuel. So, if you even take a small portion of the ethanol that we already produce from biomass feedstocks, we're going to get to that 3 billion gallons.

I guess that was a long-winded way to say it, but hopefully I got all of it in there, to show you why I really am excited about this and there's a lot of opportunity that I think gets lost in the discussion.

Molly: So, that sounds very, very positive. But business aviation has to compete with the airlines for SAF. Will there be enough for everybody to go around?

Elise: Oh, well, I do think there'll be enough, but I also encourage BGA to not really think of commercial aviation as the competition. Commercial aviation's investments are critical to helping a lot of these new facilities get built. They're the ones that are out there writing contracts for offtake with producers, and they're making direct investments into these facilities to help them come online. So, I don't think that commercials should be seen as a competition. They should be seen more as a partner in helping to move forward.

But I know that we do at World Fuel, we do everything that we can to work with our clients to help them get access to SAF, particularly if it's in the state of California. So, if someone wants it, we will do what we can to try to help get it to them. And if they're not in a physically favorable location like California or around any of the locations in EMEA that we serve, we work with them for book-and-claim. And book-and-claim helps them gain access to the emission savings from that fuel when they can't get it physically in their facilities.

Molly: Why don't you just give a little description of what book-and-claim is and how that works?

Elise: Right. For our program at World Fuel, we've had it since 2020. We take gallons that we procure from one of our producers, we deliver to them to LAX, and then we separate the green attribute from the physical gallon itself. So, it becomes essentially two separate transactions. The physical fuel we put in the tank at LAX, but it's only sold as jet A, right? It's not sold as SAF because there is a price premium associated with SAF. So, when you separate that price premium and the green attribute, you separate that off as the book-and-claim portion of the fuel.

What that does, it gives someone who doesn't have physical delivery, the ability to purchase those emission savings. And so it's fully traceable and audible process gallon per gallon. We go back. We can check and make sure that there's integrity in the system.

We traditionally sell our book-and-claim through ad hoc sales to FBOs, flight departments, individual flights that want to do it for say, special events such as Oshkosh that just happened or NBAA, any NBAA event. But then we also have an inventory management program that we provide for some of our FBOs that are not within California or in any of the closer locations in EMEA.

And then we also have different programs that utilize the book-and-claim too, like our corporate sustainability management, where we particularly help flight departments for corporations set trajectories and build up a program to increase access to SAF book-and-claim, but also help making sure that they offset the remainder of their fuel as well.

Molly: I'm out here in Kansas, so I can pay for SAF and someone in California will use it in their airplane, but I get the credit for it?

Elise: That is correct. You get the environmental benefit of doing that. You save it from your emissions. They will physically burn it in their plane. The real benefit is the real reason we have biofuels and there's an encouragement of biofuels is they want you to use them as close to the source of production as possible. And through the book-and-claim method, it enables you to do that, right? So, you're in Kansas. It's a lot cleaner for the fuel to be burned in California than it is for us to ship it by truck to Kansas for you to burn it locally because you're going to add additional carbon intensity to your fuel based on that.

Molly: How do you convince operators to use SAF or to use book-and-claim rather than just filling up with what's more readily available? And it's also a little more expensive. So how do you convince people to start down this path?

Elise: Right. Well, it is more expensive. I do believe the cost is going to come down, but a large part of it is educating that value chain within the operator. So, everyone, it's understanding. Say you're a corporate flight department and you report up to someone else, to a sustainability office. It's making sure that they understand why it's important for your flight department to be able to have the budget to use SAF because your emission savings are helping theirs.

It's also about making pilots more comfortable, making sure that they understand. People still express concerns about putting SAF into their tank and not understanding that for all intents and purposes, SAF is Jet A. When it meets the ASTM standards, it's technically reclassified as Jet A. So, you're just putting Jet A in your engine and you're burning Jet A. You have nothing to worry about. But there are still concerns about that and a misunderstanding. It's a continual process for the entire industry until we all get on the same level playing field with understanding what it means to use these.

And like I said, it also really starts with getting operators to understand the fuel they're using and what it means when they're burning conventional jet A instead of a SAF plant. Getting them to understand what a carbon footprint report is and why should they even care. We get questions about that.

And then really -- ultimately, some of it will come down to end user demand. The person who's paying for the plane, for the flight, whether that is a customer getting on for a charter or the corporate headquarters needs to understand the value of SAF and the value chain, and they need to start asking for it and ensuring, "Hey, when I can uplift SAF, we need to be uplifting SAF, and if we can't, we need to get book-and-claim wherever we can."

And I would say a large part of the work too, that our OEM partners are doing to help fully qualify and make their customers who buy their planes far more comfortable with putting SAF in their tank, that's a really important step in the process too.

Molly: Can you talk just a minute about what's going on in the area of SAF standardization? Will some be manufactured from cooking oil or other products, or how do you standardize this?

Elise: One thing with the standardization process, you've got to remember is that ASTM fully qualifies any type of blend no matter how it's produced, right? That is the ASTM process. And the diversification of feedstocks that we use for SAF it's going to be vitally important and helping us get there.

Since SAF and biofuels, their intent is to be used as close to the site of production as possible, that means you're going to have different raw materials in different areas. It's really exciting because say in the Pacific Northwest or in Northeastern U.S., we've got a lot of woody biomass waste that we have to do something with, and we have tons of different biomaterials that can be used. And that's also going to help break down the cost of the fuel itself as we diversify where we get our feedstocks from. And we're not really just reliant on fats, oils, greases and tallow.

Molly: I think we have time for just one more quick question, and that is, how should flight departments build their strategies and who should they turn to for help if they're starting that process?

Elise: So, for flight departments, there are a couple places they can turn to. Internally they should start engaging their corporate sustainability officers to make sure that their sustainability officers understand the flight department and what their options are for decarbonization.

When you're looking at SAF uptake, that means they need to come talk to their fuel providers. Ours will come to us and say, "Hey, I'm flying here next. Is there going to be a place where I can uplift SAF? If I can't, okay, let's get your book-and-claim for that flight when you want to do that," and start making a broader discussion with your internal offices and with your fuel providers to make sure we can get where we need to be.

And that's part of the role where our sustainability advisory comes in, because we'll help you measure, plan, and implement to meet those goals. Everybody's got to start somewhere, and we're all on different parts of the journey. And the important part is that we get started.

Molly: Great. Well, we ran a little long, but this topic is so fascinating and interesting. Thank you for joining us. Thank you all for listening.

Don't miss the next episode by subscribing to us in your podcast app of choice. And one last request. If you're listening to the BCA podcast in Apple Podcasts and want to support this podcast, please leave us a star rating or write a review.

Thank you again, Elise, for joining us, and thank you all for listening. Bye for now.


Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.