Boeing CEO: Promises about clean aviation fuel technology outweigh

WASHINGTON — Expectations for a rapid decarbonization of aviation are unrealistic and are creating pressure to invest in unproven technologies rather than the mass production of sustainable aviation fuel, which will have an immediate payoff, Boeing CEO David Calhoun.

Speaking last week at a US Chamber of Commerce aerospace event here, the Boeing (NYSE: BA) boss questioned the speed at which governments and stakeholders promise change when little biofuel infrastructure exists and alternative powertrains are still on the horizon.

“My fear is the rhythm. You talk about a lot of potential technologies, hydrogen, including green hydrogen, you want to get funding and then you make political decisions that try to accelerate all of that at a very fast pace: ‘You’re going to be green by 2035. Every next plane has to be hydrogen .

“You confuse politicians in the process,” he said.

Boeing is working to meet the industry goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Calhoun said the aviation sector has set itself an ambitious target considering it only accounts for 2.4% of global CO2 emissions. The company published its annual sustainability report last summer.

Boeing, which invested $450 million last January in vertical takeoff and landing electric air taxi developer Wisk, isn’t aggressively pursuing hydrogen power. Rival Airbus, by contrast, has said it believes it can produce a hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2035, although it could be 2040 before regulators certify it, according to analysts.

“Hydrogen on its best day is going to move [carbon reduction] about 2%. That doesn’t mean we don’t believe in it. But his contributions are from the second half of the century, not the first. Sustainable aviation fuel that is the engine. And it’s not easy either,” said the manufacturer’s top executive.

Experts say hydrogen is highly efficient but takes up much more space than jet fuel, making it impossible to use for anything other than short flights without a complete redesign of the aircraft, which could take decades.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), by comparison, will make up more than 30% of carbon emission reductions in the short and medium term, Calhoun argued. The International Air Transport Association’s reference scenario for carbon-neutral flights by mid-century calls for SAF to reduce 65% of emissions.

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Currently, only about 0.1% of the fuel consumed by commercial aircraft is SAF, according to aviation consultancy IBA. It costs two to four times more than conventional jet fuel.

Reaching pollution targets will require commercial SAF production at scale, advocates say.

IATA estimates that 119 billion gallons will need to be produced annually to reach net zero carbon by mid-century. Current investment commitments from energy companies and aviation partners will push production from 33 million gallons per year to 1.3 billion gallons by 2025. Effective government incentives could boost production to 8 billion gallons. by 2030, the amount needed to achieve economies of scale and make fuel affordable.

Boeing CEO David Calhoun visits the company’s exhibit at the Aerospace Summit. (Photo: Eric Kulisch)

Today’s jet engines can take a 50/50 mix of SAF, reducing CO2 emissions by up to 80%. Boeing and Airbus are working toward certification of 100% SAF-powered engines, which industry officials expect by the end of the decade.

JetBlue announced Friday that it plans to buy 25 million gallons of CO2-derived SAF from Air Company, which uses renewable electricity to capture carbon from the atmosphere. The five-year purchase commitment is expected to begin in 2027. JetBlue (NASDAQ: JBLU) has set a goal of converting 10% of its total fuel use to SAF on a combined basis by 2030.

Air Company claims that its carbon-neutral fuel offers an additional 14% reduction in emissions per net gallon on a life cycle basis than SAF derived from plant feedstocks or bio-waste.

Calhoun, who led GE Aircraft Engines early in his career, said getting to 100% SAF usage is more complicated than many suggest.

“It is not enough that an engine burns it. … Variations in fuel are huge, they have a huge impact on the life cycle of an engine, and our airlines buy engines during their useful life. And the second 10 years are much more difficult than the first 10,” Calhoun said. “So there is a huge technology investment that has to go into propulsion technologies. To prepare for SAF, we must ensure that every next aircraft is capable of burning SAF. And that is possible. And then, of course, we have to bring it to market.

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“So what can a policymaker do to screw it up? They can tell us that it must have a 50% SAF by 2035. And the music will stop. Because we will not be able to arrive. We will go a long way, but we will not be able to get there.”

The aviation industry needs to educate policymakers on what can realistically be achieved in various time frames, Calhoun said. He invited officials and other stakeholders to use Boeing’s Cascade tool, which analyzes emissions from every aircraft in operation and identifies what steps would be needed to get to net-zero emissions by 2050.

“If we do that, I think the policymakers, in light of the fact that we are 2% of the problem, will come along and we can educate them and they will be in the right place,” the executive director said.

“Sustainability is good for us, it’s good for aviation. It will increase the speed at which we move older aircraft. Current technology has already improved the situation by 30% over what they displace. As we move SAF into that environment, that number increases. And then we have to increase the speed at which we deliver the fleets. I think policymakers will find some nice ways to help us with that,” Calhoun added. “And avoid choosing technologies.”

The recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 includes a tax credit for biofuel producers to help reduce the cost and stimulate production of SAF.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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