Joanna Bailey Simple Flying
Sustainable Fuels Will Remain Key Even When Hydrogen Planes Arrive
July 12, 2021
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  • With much talk about hydrogen planes becoming a reality in the future, where does sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) fit in? The huge investment required to ramp up production and availability of SAF over the coming years could end up being redundant if all airlines switch to hydrogen. However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) believes that, despite the prospects of a hydrogen plane, SAF will remain a part of the decarbonization solution for many years to come.

    Does the future hydrogen plane negate the need for sustainable aviation fuel?

    There’s much talk about sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) at the moment. From new airports working to supply SAF from their bases to airlines operating their first SAF flights, there is a keen ramp-up of attention on this technology as being a route to decarbonizing flying.

    But with Airbus pledging to bring a hydrogen plane to market by 2035, is this focus on SAF still needed? Surely, if a carbon zero plane is just a decade away, investing huge amounts in creating the infrastructure necessary for SAF is likely to be outdated by the time it’s all complete?

    Speaking at a recent International Air Transport Association (IATA) media briefing, Director General of IATA and former IAG CEO Willie Walsh noted that, while hydrogen remains a part of the long-term solution, there is still a lot of work to be done. He commented,

    “Hydrogen is a potential source of improvement for the industry. Airbus has committed to developing a hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2035, and we welcome that. Clearly, what you need to see is for hydrogen to be produced from clean energy. A lot of energy is required to develop hydrogen. So I think there’s more work to be done on hydrogen than there is in sustainable fuels.

    “If you look at between now and 2035, when Airbus believe they can have a hydrogen-powered aircraft, we believe in that timeframe, up to 2035, credible offsetting is a significant part of the solution, with the addition of more and more scaled production of sustainable fuels. Hydrogen is potentially part of the solution, but I think it’s beyond 2035.”

    SAF is required to decarbonize the existing fleet

    Speaking at the same briefing, Sebastian Mikosz, Senior Vice President for Member and External Relations at IATA and former LOT Polish CEO, noted that even when a hydrogen plane arrives, there will still need to be a means of making the existing fleet greener. He said,

    “Even if the hydrogen plane arrives in 2035, we will still need SAF because the shift of fleet will not be immediate.  Airbus announced a mid-range plane while we know that we pollute more on the long-haul. We need to address what is the biggest chunk of our pollution, which is the long-haul, and SAF seems to be the technology for us that is clearly available as we speak. We just need to ramp it up.”

    Airline fleet renewal is incredibly variable. While some airlines pride themselves on operating you fleets, typically turning aircraft over when they get to around 10 years of age, others are not in a position to do so. Some airlines survive by using older, secondhand planes availing of the cheaper leasing rates of these aircraft.

    Even if a hydrogen plane does arrive in 2035, chances are the legacy aircraft will be around for 10, 20 years, or more. As such, SAF remains just as relevant in the face of an alternative fuel as it does today.

    What’s the hold-up?

    Walsh explained the benefits of SAF and why it’s such a good solution for right now, saying,

    “Sustainable aviation fuel is what we call a drop-in fuel, so you can use it on existing aircraft and engines – it doesn’t require any modification. The infrastructure is in place as all of the airports because you’re just feeding it into the existing kerosene distribution system.”

    While it’s not currently possible to operate existing aircraft on 100% SAF, regulations permit airlines to go up to 50% SAF origin fuel. However, most aircraft are flying on 0% SAF, with the European Union only now contemplating a 2% blend mandate, rising over time to 5% and then 7%. So why aren’t airlines using more SAF right now?

    The issue here is the high price of the fuel. Using SAF makes airlines less competitive because it costs so much more than a fossil fuel-based alternative. That high price is a product of the scarcity of supply – low production rates of SAF means airlines cannot benefit from the economies of scale seen with fossil fuel production.

    It’s a chicken and egg situation and one that is going to require a mammoth effort to break through. Walsh says that it’s not good enough that producers expect airlines to fund the switch to SAF, and says that fuel companies, who have benefitted so much from aviation in the past, should step up to help them make this environmentally beneficial switch. He commented,

    “There has to be an incentive to move them to a new platform of technology. Now, that incentive is going to come from the industry because we’re going to demand it. The fuel companies, the oil companies, are clearly interested in continuing to produce kerosene, because they’ve made significant investment in that area. We need them to step up to the mark.

    “It’s not good enough that these people talk about wanting to achieve carbon neutrality and net zero in 2050. We need them to be part of the solution and therefore, they got to start putting their money and their investments and their focus on sustainable fuels in the same way as they focused on Jet kerosene for many, many years.

    “I think the critical thing here is that the industry will demand it. Because what will be unacceptable to us is if everybody who benefits from our industry in the wider aviation chain thinks that the airlines will just write a big check. We’re not going to do that. We clearly will pay the price that is necessary, but we expect others to invest and to pay the price as well.”