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India joins aviation renewables club

More airlines are starting to use alternative fuels, but still on a very limited basis

It was back in 2008 when Virgin Atlantic operated the first test flight powered by jet fuel blended with biofuel. Since then more than 25 airlines have started to gradually introduce the limited use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

Now India's SpiceJet has joined the club, operating a flight from Dehradun to Delhi with a biojet fuel blend and becoming the first airline in the country to adopt SAF use.

John Pitts, head of eJet Limited, a global aviation fuel specialist, told Petroleum Economist that SpiceJet's move is significant, given that India is "the third-largest civil aviation market in the world and one of the fastest growing. SpiceJet has broken the barrier and set an example for the other Indian airlines to follow."

Pitts also believes that the potential in India for expanding the range and production of SAF is considerable: "India has a strong agricultural sector, and a lot of unusable biomass resulting from this is currently burned as waste. This might be a valuable source of feedstock for some renewable fuel initiatives if collection and movement to processing plants can be done efficiently and without incurring a carbon deficit."

The global aviation industry has committed itself to cleaner flight. From 2009 to 2020 fuel efficiency is being improved by 1.5% a year, mainly through the introduction of new and technologically advanced aircraft. In 2020, the industry has pledged to stabilise CO2 emissions through carbon-neutral growth.

By 2050, the 191 member countries of the International Civil Aviation Organisation have pledged to cut emissions to 50% of 2005 levels. The mandatory start-date for this carbon offset and reduction scheme is 2027, but 68 states have said they will begin the process on a voluntary basis from 2021.

High on the agenda

Striving for cleaner and more efficient services, Pitts says, is now a key priority for the sector. "I think the major airlines can see that this is the way the aviation industry is going, he adds. "Some already have long-term off-take agreements with SAF supplies-United, Cathay Pacific and Qantas, for example. Oslo airport offers SAF supply through its main fuel system."

But the trend has to be seen in context. "The quantities in all these instances are relatively low and will remain so until the use of this type of fuel becomes a commercially viable option for the airlines."

Today, with the current demand for SAF still less than 1% of total jet fuel demand, the eJet boss says, "it's perhaps still too soon to say what effect these fuels are having on emissions. I imagine that it will be in the latter half of the next decade—when the mandatory carbon offset scheme has come into force—that we'll be able to measure the impact."

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