WASHINGTON — Expectations to quickly decarbonize aviation are unrealistic and create pressure to invest in unproven technologies instead of mass-producing sustainable aviation fuels that would bring immediate benefits, Boeing CEO David Calhoun said.

Speaking last week in a US Chamber of Commerce Aerospace Event in Washington, Boeing (NYSE: B.A) The executive questioned the speed with which governments and stakeholders are promising change when biofuel production infrastructure is scarce and alternative propulsion systems are still on the horizon.

“I’m afraid of the pace. A lot of potential hydrogen technologies, including clean hydrogen, are being discussed, wanting to get funding, and then leading to policy decisions that try to accelerate it all at a very fast pace: “You’re going to be green by 2035. Every subsequent plane must be hydrogen-powered.”

“You’re confusing the politicians in the process,” he said.

Boeing, which released its annual sustainability report last summer, is working toward an industry goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Calhoun said the aviation sector has set an ambitious target, given that it accounts for only 2.4% of global CO2 emissions.

Boeing, which last January invested $450 million in vertical takeoff and landing electric air taxi developer Wisk, is not aggressively pursuing hydrogen power. Rival Airbus, by contrast, has said it believes it can produce a hydrogen-powered plane by 2035, although analysts say it could be until 2040 before regulators certify it.

“Hydrogen on its best day will move [carbon reduction] about 2%. That doesn’t mean we don’t believe in it. But his contribution falls on the second half of the century, not the first. A sustainable aviation fuel that is a propellant. And it’s not easy either,” said the head of the manufacturer.

Experts say hydrogen is very efficient but takes up much more space than jet fuel, making it impossible to use for anything but short flights without a complete overhaul of the plane, which could take decades.

By comparison, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) would account for more than 30% of carbon reductions in the short to medium term, he argued. The International Air Transport Association’s baseline scenario for carbon-neutral flight by mid-century calls for a 65% reduction in emissions with SAF.

According to aviation consultancy IBA, currently only about 0.1% of the fuel consumed by commercial aircraft is SAF. It costs two to four times more than conventional jet fuel.

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

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

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

Jet engines today can take a 50/50 SAF mixture, which reduces CO2 emissions by up to 80%. Boeing and Airbus are working to certify 100% SAF-powered engines, which industry officials expect by the end of the decade.

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

Air Company claims its carbon-neutral fuel provides an additional 14% reduction in emissions per gallon of net on a life-cycle basis than SAF derived from plant feedstock or bio-waste.

Calhoun, who ran GE Aircraft Engines earlier in his career, said moving to 100 percent SAF use is more difficult than many people think.

“It’s not good enough that the engine burns it. … The changes in fuel are huge, they have a big impact on the life cycle of the engine, and our airlines buy engines for their entire life. And the second 10 years are much more difficult than the first 10,” Calhoun said. “So there’s a huge investment in technology that has to go into propulsion technology. To prepare for the SAF, we need to ensure that every subsequent aircraft is capable of burning the SAF. And it is possible. And of course we have to bring it to market.

“So what can a politician do to screw things up? They can tell us that you must be 50% SAF by 2035. And the music will stop. Because we will not get there. It will take us a long time to get there, but we will not be able to get there.’

The aviation industry needs to educate policymakers about what can realistically be achieved in different timeframes, Calhoun said. He suggested officials and other stakeholders use Boeing’s Cascade tool, which analyzes the emissions of each aircraft in service and determines what steps need to be taken to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

“If we do that, I think the politicians, given the fact that we are 2% of the problem, will come with us and we can train them and they will be in the right place,” the CEO said.

“Sustainable development is good for us, good for aviation. This will increase the rate at which we are phasing out older aircraft. Today’s technologies have already improved the situation by 30% compared to what they are displacing. As the SAF moves into this environment, this number increases. And then we have to increase the speed at which we transfer the fleet. I really think politicians are going to come up with some cute ways to help us do that,” Calhoun added. “And avoid choosing technology.”

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provides a tax credit for biofuel producers to help lower the cost and encourage SAF production.

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

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