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The Big Idea: Sustainable Jet Juice

A jet fuel derived from old cooking oil may not sound all that sexy, but it doesn’t have to. It’s already the most effective way to make business aviation greener. Winglets, aerodynamic shapes, space-age composites and avionics all contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of private jets, but they’re lightweights next to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Compared to fossil jet fuel, SAF in its pure, unblended form cuts CO2 emissions by up to 80 percent, reducing polluting particulate matter by 90 percent and eliminating sulfur oxide.

“We are turning trash into treasure,” says Chris Cooper, vice president for renewable aviation at Neste, one of a number of providers focused on the fledgling biofuel market for planes. Cooper notes that private jets burn 1.8 billion gallons of fossil fuel each year. “That’s a deep, dark footprint,” he says.

The real beauty of SAF? It works with any aircraft engine that burns Jet A fuel, skipping the need for modification.

“The plane doesn’t notice the difference, but the environment does,” says Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). The trade association has thrown its considerable weight behind industrywide adoption of SAF. “After years of solutions that provide small percentage gains in sustainability, we’ve found the big thing,” he says.

The last year has been a turning point. NetJets has committed to at least 100 million gallons over the next decade, while San Francisco’s Signature Flight Support is the world’s first fixed-based operator to convert its entire supply for business aviation. It uses existing oil pipelines to move the biofuel into San Francisco, says Cooper.

Corporations as diverse as Nike, Deloitte and Amazon have pledged to come on board. Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the country’s largest buyer of SAF, points out its cost—three times that of fossil fuel— remains an inhibitor. “It’ll be interesting to see how we can scale that up and can you get that green premium down from 300 percent,” he said at a recent conference.

One way, argue proponents, is through financial incentives. The NBAA, Neste and dozens of other aviation firms support a blender’s tax credit. The credit aims to support SAF producers as they build biorefineries, and with increases in supply, biofuel prices will come down. Neste expects to produce 515 million gallons of SAF in 2023, nearly 15 times current levels. The NBAA says biofuel production could top 1 billion gallons by 2025.

How quickly prices come down and infrastructure goes up are the big unknowns. Cooper believes SAF adoption is inevitable because it’s propelled by the clients in the cabin. Firms like VistaJet report 80 percent of its clients have paid to offset the carbon output of their flights. “We’re seeing the biggest movement in business aviation in a long time,” Cooper says, “and the consumer is driving it.”