Sustainable Aviation Fuel Production Must Reach Scale, Says WestJet CEO

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Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will play a critical role in helping to decarbonize the aviation industry, but its production must be scaled up, says the chief executive of Canada’s second-largest airline.

“I sometimes call it a pharmacy product [because] it’s produced in small quantities at very high prices,” Alexis von Hoensbroech, CEO of Calgary-based WestJet Group, said Tuesday during a plenary session at the World Petroleum Congress.

“This is the biggest challenge for us as an industry,” he added. “Because in the end we will need a lot of this stuff.”

WestJet is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

By that date, von Hoensbroech estimates the global uptake in sustainable aviation fuel will be three billion barrels.

“This will be up to a trillion-dollar market. But so far, we are not there,” he said.

Canada could be a large-scale producer of SAF, says WestJet, because it has all the necessary building blocks: abundant space to grow feedstock, a large oil and gas industry, and robust federal sustainability goals.

In a news release issued later in the day, the company said “the time is now for a regulatory framework” to create a competitive investment climate for sustainable aviation fuel production in the country.

It also noted that the best path forward to making SAF the low carbon fuel standard is through collaboration between airlines, producers and policy-makers.

 “The most direct path to achieve our target of net-zero emissions by 2050 hinges on the future of SAF production,” von Hoensbroech said in the release. “Access to SAF continues to be constrained by high costs, which can be as much as three to five times that of jet fuel.”

A positive, however, is that SAF can be blended with conventional jet fuel to meet all certification and safety requirements, while requiring no new investments in aircraft engines, fuel infrastructure or distribution processes.

Last year, WestJet announced a three-month commitment to operate all flights from San Francisco to Calgary with SAF produced by Neste, a leading global producer of renewable fuels.

Why San Francisco?

“Because San Francisco is the only place where we could pick it up,” von Hoensbroech told the plenary session. “There’s not a single drop of sustainable aviation fuel being produced in Canada.”

Neste, which has been supplying SAF at the San Francisco International Airport since 2020, says its fuel is made from renewable waste and residue raw materials, such as used cooking oil and animal fat waste.

Future state

Right now, SAF is largely based on feedstock, including waste feedstock.

“Once you scale up, you will get to the limits of feedstock waste that can actually be used,” von Hoensbroech said. “And then you get to a very different — even morally difficult — space. Because then you get into competition — food versus fuel — which is a very tough thing.”

He believes a future state may involve producing a jet fuel from waste CO2 and green hydrogen, although that chemical process would require “enormous” amounts of energy.

“So out of 100 per cent energy that you put into the process, you will eventually get 20 per cent in the fuel. Where will you get all of this energy from? My prediction is that solar [and] wind will be nowhere close to what’s needed to create this. So I personally think we will see a renaissance of nuclear power.”

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