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Boeing CEO: Promises about clean aviation fuel outpace technology

Calhoun says engines aren’t ready for 100% sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen will take decades to develop

WASHINGTON — Expectations for quick decarbonization of aviation are unrealistic and create pressure to invest in unproven technologies instead of mass production of sustainable aviation fuel, which will have an immediate benefit, said Boeing CEO David Calhoun.

Speaking last week at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce aerospace event here, the Boeing (NYSE: BA) chief questioned the speed at which governments and stakeholders are promising change when little biofuels infrastructure exists and alternative propulsion systems are still over the horizon.

“My fear is pace. A lot of potential technologies, hydrogen, including green hydrogen, get talked about, want to get funded and then lead to policy choices that try to accelerate all of that at a very fast pace: ‘You’ll be green by 2035. Every next airplane has to be hydrogen.’

“You confuse policymakers 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 an ambitious target considering it only represents 2.4% of global CO2 emissions. The company released its annual sustainability report last summer.

Boeing, which invested $450 million last January in electric vertical takeoff and landing air taxi developer Wisk, is not 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 its contributions are in the second half of the century, not the first half. Sustainable aviation fuel that is the mover. And it isn’t easy either,” said the manufacturer’s top executive.

Experts say hydrogen is very efficient but occupies a lot more space than jet fuel, which makes it impossible to use for anything other than short flights without a complete redesign of aircraft, which could take decades.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), by comparison, will constitute more than 30% of the carbon emissions reduction in the short and medium term, Calhoun argued. The International Air Transport Association’s baseline scenario for carbon-neutral flying by midcentury calls for 65% of emissions to be abated by SAF.

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

Achieving pollution targets will require commercial SAF production at scale, proponents say.

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

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

Jet engines today can take a 50/50 blend of SAF, which reduces CO2 emissions by up to 80%. Boeing and Airbus are working to get certification for engines that operate 100% on SAF, which industry officials expect by the end of the decade. 

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

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

Calhoun, who ran GE Aircraft Engines earlier in his career, said getting to 100% SAF use is more complicated than many suggest. 

“It’s not good enough that an engine burns it. … Variations in fuel are enormous, impactful on the life cycle of an engine enormously, and our airlines buy engines for their life. And the second 10 years is a lot tougher than the first 10,” Calhoun said. “So there’s an enormous technology investment that has to go into propulsion technologies. To prepare for SAF, we have to make sure every next airplane is capable of burning SAF. And that’s possible. And then of course, we’ve got to get it out there in the marketplace. 

“So what can a policymaker do to screw it up? They can tell us you have to be 50% SAF by 2035. And the music will stop. Because we won’t be able to get there. We’ll get a long way but we won’t 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 interested parties to use Boeing’s Cascade tool, which analyzes the emissions of every plane in operation and identifies what steps would be needed to get to net-zero emissions by 2050.

“If we do that, I think policymakers in light of the fact that we are 2% of the problem, they’ll go with us and we can educate them and they’ll be in the right spot,” the CEO said. 

“Sustainability is good for us, is good for aviation. It will increase the rate at which we displace older airplanes. Today’s technology has already improved the situation 30% over what they displace. As we move SAF into that environment, that number gets bigger. And then we have to increase the rate at which we turn over the fleets. I do think policymakers will come up with some cute ways of helping 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 bring down the cost and stimulate production of SAF.

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

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at ekulisch@freightwaves.com