The recent breakthrough in palm oil-blended aviation fuel has opened a new vista of opportunities for indigenous airlines cum agricultural sector to contribute to the value chain of air transport going green agenda. Regrettably, Nigeria and African countries – that are more endowed in biofuel raw materials – have zero policies for its R&D and requisite awareness creation.
Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) programme recorded a new milestone recently when Garuda Indonesia made a successful commercial flight on jet engines that are powered by palm oil blended fuel.
The non-fossil fuel is produced by Indonesian state energy firm, PT Pertamina (PERTM.UL), at its Cilacap refinery, using hydroprocessed esters and fatty acid (HEFA) technology and is made of refined bleached deodorised palm kernel oil.
The palm kernel-based innovation is one of the latest additions to other biofuel raw materials, which major airlines have been distilling towards the ambitious net-zero 2050 plan of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Suffice to add that the African countries also come top of the countries most endowed in the raw materials for SAF, and a reason for the globe to look forward to a net-zero world that is powered by green energy.
But on the flip side, the continent is the least prepared for the emerging trend in energy mix, coupled with little or no buzz among the indigenous people dependent on fossil fuel and farmers that will be critical to the SAF feedstock.
While aviation stakeholders agreed on the cogency of SAF to the nearest future of the air transport industry, they are divided on African countries’ roles in the emerging research and development (R&D) of green fuel – beyond just supplier of the raw materials.
Palm-oil: Not just a cooking oil
Indonesia, last weekend, flew its first commercial flight using palm oil-blended jet fuel. Garuda Indonesia Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Irfan Setiaputra, noted that the Boeing 737-800NG aircraft, operated by flag carrier Garuda Indonesia, carried more than 100 passengers from the capital Jakarta to Surakarta city about 550 kilometres (342 miles) away.
“We will discuss further with Pertamina, Energy Ministry and other parties,” Irfan said, “to ensure this fuel is commercially reasonable”.
Pertamina earlier said the palm-based fuel emits less atmosphere warming greenhouse gases compared with fossil fuels, and palm oil producing countries have called for the edible oil to be included in feedstock for the production of SAF.
“In 2021, Pertamina successfully produced 2.0 SAF in its Cilacap unit using co-processing technology and was made of refined bleached deodorised palm kernel oil with production capacity 1,350 kilolitres per day,” said Alfian Nasution, a director at Pertamina.
Race to net-zero by 2050: Cruising on high altitude
Despite European Union’s concern for potential deforestation in palm oil plantations and current restriction on palm oil imports to EU countries, the breakthrough in palm-oil blended aviation fuel is a valuable addition to the growing list of biofuel alternatives for world airlines, and the plan to go green with net-zero emission.
Recall that the aviation industry, a major emitter of greenhouse gases, is looking for ways to cut its carbon footprint by using alternative fuels. Experts say the industry will need 450 billion litres of SAF a year by 2050, if the fuel is to account for around 65 per cent of the mitigation needed to achieve net-zero targets.
Therefore, in October 2021, IATA member airlines (over 280) committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. The path to achieve this involves a combination of SAF, new propulsion technology, infrastructure and operational efficiencies, and carbon offsets/carbon capture to fill any gaps.
In 2022, SAF gained much traction in North America. At the summit of the Americas early June, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in cooperation with Boeing, hosted a roundtable on sustainable aviation with carriers from the region using 100,000 gallons of SAF.
Oneworld Alliance-member airlines planned to purchase up to 200 million gallons of SAF per year from 2027. Shell, Accenture, and American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT) are jointly launching Avelia, one of the world’s first blockchain-powered digital SAF book-and-claim solutions for business travel. It’s the largest SAF book-and-claim pilot at launch, offering around one million gallons of SAF.
Similarly, United Airlines has become the first U.S. airline to sign an agreement to purchase SAF out of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, while Southwest Airlines announced an investment into the SAFFiRE Renewables startup as part of a Department of Energy-backed project to develop and produce scalable SAF.
Hawaiian Airlines and Par Hawaii are not left out. They announced plans to join forces to study the commercial viability of locally-produced SAF. Fulcrum BioEnergy also announced the completion of commissioning and the initial operations of its Sierra BioFuels Plant, the world’s first landfill waste to renewable transportation fuels plant.
Indeed, the future of SAF-powered aviation is more real than anticipated. Already, over 50 airlines and 450, 000 flights have take-off on SAF. According to IATA, over 100 million litres were produced in 2021 and about $17 billion of SAF are in forward purchase in 2022. Worldwide, the aviation industry demand for SAF will reach 330-445 billion litres by 2050.
IATA’s Director General, Willie Walsh, noted that net-zero by 2050 would require a global transition for aviation to new fuels, technologies and operations.
Walsh said: “The significant investments to get there will need a solid policy foundation aligned with a global way forward. We need governments to set a framework to incentivise production of SAF and ensure it is as attractive to produce as automotive biofuels,” he said.
According to IATA, the SAF market remains in its early stages of development, making the task of estimating a global price a challenging one. In 2022, the average SAF price estimate was sold at an average of $2,400/t – which is around two and half times higher than the price of conventional jet fuel.
Akin to a cult-like status, not much buzz on SAF, its R&D, and awareness creation is heard in African countries that are logically significant for the green fuel raw materials.
Agro-economist, Benson Izilien, remarked that indigenous people in African rural communities are just as important to the success of the net-zero agenda of the air travel industry as the ongoing research.
Izilien said: “The entire agenda is targeted at sustainability, which is commendable and should be supported with domestic policies of all governments. Unfortunately, we seem to be forgetting to also enlighten rural communities and farmers that are in the downstream end of this chain.
“From African perspective, the world is further shifting from fossils to green fuels, but that will come with economic deprivation for indigenous people that depend on fossils for survival. To ignore them is not part of the sustainability goals. They also need to be supported to shift attention to the ‘new oil’ like palm oil plantations for the feedstock of biofuel.
“I have not seen that, and the entire continent is behaving as if 2050 is a century away. Countries and airline operators may not have the huge resources to make local discoveries for global consumption, but we should at least be better prepared to own the raw material niche of the programme,” Izilien said.
Aviation fuel expert and Director of Mangrove Hills Consulting Limited, Dr Olasimbo Betiku, reckoned on the imminence of world aviation powered by SAF, and the relevance of African countries to the energy mix.
Betiku said the continent is in the vantage position of huge supplies, but “needs a clear-cut strategy of turning her energy plenitude into a sustainable supply of eco-friendly energy, where sustainable aviation is a key component.”
Checks showed that the policy direction of the Ministry of the Aviation and Aerospace still has no detailed plans for SAF, be it for public or private operators.
Director of Research at Zenith Travels, Olumide Ohunayo, however, said there is a more pressing energy need in Nigeria and several African countries than to be concerned with SAF at its teething stage.
Ohunayo said more advanced countries with stronger economies are better off with the innovations, ahead of providing SAF in commercial quantities for all.
“As it is now, SAF is far more expensive than Jet-A1 for any domestic carrier to want to tinker with, except they are getting involved in the supply of the raw materials to complement available technology. Right now, we should focus more on bringing down the cost of conventional fuel and leave SAF for the future,” he said.
But be it now or later, it is imperative for African countries and airline operators to have a strategic plan for the green future of global aviation to avert being left behind in the race currently led by the likes of Garuda Indonesia, Oneworld Alliance members, United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines.
To achieve a substantial scale-up of SAF production as IATA has advised, collaboration is required between governments and key industry players.
Such efforts will pave the way for globally synchronised strategic policies, offering incentives and facilitating the investments necessary to bring about the expansion of SAF capacity and production in time for aviation to meet its net-zero commitment.