SAF central to Europe’s ReFuelEU plans

 - June 1, 2021, 8:50 AM
KLM flew its first passenger flight with sustainable synthetic kerosene in January.

Europe’s airlines traditionally like to bicker with airports and air navigation service providers over a range of issues, most prominently regarding charges and allegations of monopolistic behavior. Now, though, the industry seems to have found common ground on one topic: the environment.

Prompted by public perception of air transport as an irresponsible polluter and by the European Green Deal—which would enshrine the EU’s commitment to reaching climate neutrality by 2050 and reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030—the industry in February launched “Destination 2050–A Route to Net Zero European Aviation.” The cross-industry sustainability initiative details a roadmap to reduce CO2 emissions from all flights within and departing from the “EU+,” which covers the EU27, the UK, and the four European Free Trade Association countries. The plan calls for emissions cuts of 45 percent by 2030 compared with the 2018 baseline and for reaching net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. The report calculates that using SAF could achieve emission reductions of up to 46 percent, including a 12 percent CO2 reduction from the effect of the more costly SAF on demand.

The advantages of SAF to decarbonize flying are well-established—commercial flights powered partly by a sustainable biofuel started in 2011—yet its uptake remains at minimal levels. SAF now accounts for less than 1 percent of EU aviation fuel consumption and a mere 25 airports in Europe receive sustainable bio-jet fuel, a recently published map by Eurocontrol reveals. Most of those airports receive batches on an ad-hoc basis and fewer than half receive ongoing SAF deliveries, with all of the latter located in the Nordics.

“For Europe to attain its climate goals, SAF must account for an increasing share of aviation fuel’s mix to reach more than 60 percent by 2050,” asserted EU transport commissioner Adina Valean. European Commission analysis indicates that over time synthetic or electro-fuels—also known as power-to-jet fuels or power-to-liquid (PtL) fuels—account for the largest share of sustainable low-carbon aviation fuels, she said. KLM in January operated an industry-first passenger flight, from Amsterdam to Madrid, using an admixture of 500 liters of sustainable synthetic kerosene. The synthetic SAF was produced by Shell in its research center in Amsterdam and is based on CO2, water, and renewable electricity from Dutch wind and solar installations. 

Adina Valean
EU transport commissioner Adina Valean.

Speaking during her keynote address in the online SAF Summit organized by EBAA on April 20, Valean expressed confidence that the upcoming ReFuelEU Aviation initiative “will boost significantly both the production and the uptake of SAF by establishing a long-term regulatory framework on the EU level.”

The European Commission considered various policy options but concluded, following a three-month public consultation, that the obligation to blend a certain percentage of SAF with conventional fossil kerosene is the best way to “address the chicken-and-egg problem and help the demand-and-supply curves to meet somewhere,” noted Filip Cornelis, director of aviation with the European Commission’s transport directorate. To have “maximum” effect, he said, the obligations for minimum uptake of SAF will not be limited to intra-EU flights but will include all flights that depart from European airports. The mandate, whose details the commission still hasn’t formally released, will likely apply to fuel suppliers rather than individual airlines.

“We hope to put in place a quite simple system with not too much additional administrative burdens,” Cornelis emphasized, though operators will need to collect the data on the quantity and type of SAF uplifted so they can use it to obtain credits under the EU emissions trading system and ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

EU-wide legislation will avoid “reliance on national initiatives,” Valean reckoned. Several European countries have already set blending obligations or have announced plans to do so. Norway introduced a requirement that 0.5 percent of advanced biofuel be mixed with jet fuel sold starting in 2020, with the aim of increasing the use of SAF to 30 percent of aviation fuel by 2030. The Dutch government has set a target of 14 percent by 2030 while a recent French law requires all aircraft operators refueling in the country to use at least 1 percent SAF by 2022, 2 percent by 2025, and 5 percent by 2030. Germany has begun preparing legislation that calls for a 0.5 percent blend with fuels from 2026, increasing to 2 percent by 2030. Spain’s climate-change law establishes a 2 percent SAF supply objective for 2025.

The blending targets in the Re-FuelEU Aviation initiative will be binding and uniform across the bloc, Valean confirmed, but “they must be realistic—initially modest but becoming increasingly ambitious beyond 2030,” she said, adding that the fuel industry needs time to ramp up production.

According to Jonathan Wood, vice president for renewable aviation at Neste, a target SAF share of 5 percent of all aviation fuel demand by 2025 and 10 percent by 2030 is feasible in Europe. Many fuel producers on the Continent are accelerating the production of low-carbon fuels, often in cooperation with airlines that see it as a means to secure their own supply. KLM joined with SkyNRG on the construction of a plant in the Netherlands that's scheduled for opening next year and committed to purchasing three-quarters of the planned 100,000 tonnes of annual SAF production over 10 years. SAS and Preem, Sweden largest fuel company, signed an agreement to investigate the possibility of large-scale deliveries of biojet fuel starting in 2023, and British Airways has partnered with sustainable jet fuel developers LanzaJet and Velocys as part of a $400 million investment in the development of SAF by parent company International Airlines Group (IAG) in the next 20 years.

IAG also committed to powering 10 percent of its flights with SAF by 2030. The group, which has airlines in the UK and the EU, will buy 1 million tonnes of SAF per year, resulting in a reduction in annual emissions of 2 million tonnes within nine years.

The European Commission aims to release the ReFuelEU Aviation proposal before the summer. It will need approval from the Council of the EU, which represents the bloc’s member states, and the European Parliament. The requirement will come in the form of regulation and thus it will immediately apply across member states once adopted.

In parallel to the ReFuelEU proposal, the European Commission is reviewing the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) to align them with the European Green Deal’s targets. Plans call for the ETS directive to include a proposal to reduce the free ETS allowances allocated to airlines.