Trade divided as ambitious SAF proposals stoke feedstock fears
European Union scheme intends to raise SAF blend mandate across the bloc to 63% by 2050
A UK consultation on proposed plans to drive increased use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) has been warmly received by biofuel producers, marking the latest contribution to a raft of international initiatives looking to decarbonize the aviation sector.
However, feedstock and biofuel traders have raised fears over the sheer ambition of the targets, with the expectation that huge volumes of SAF will be needed to meet the aggressive and substantial increases in mandates.
“[If released, new mandates] will suck up every single drop of used cooking oil in the entire world,” one UK-based trade source said regarding US, EU, and UK mandate proposals.
While the document accompanying the UK’s SAF consultation acknowledged the challenges around feedstocks, the proposals are augmented by a hugely ambitious European Union scheme that intends to raise the SAF blend mandate across the bloc to 63% by 2050.
According to figures from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), SAF currently amounts to less than 0.05% of total EU aviation fuel supply and estimates that to meet such a mandate, the EU would need to procure supply of 28.6 million tonnes of SAF by 2050.
Meanwhile, figures from the US Department of Agriculture expect SAF supply would have to reach 36 billion gallons – around 164 million tonnes – in the coming decades, representing a potentially huge strain on feedstocks drawn largely from the oilseed sector.
The UK’s scheme anticipates some of the supply challenges, proposing to commit the UK to increased mandates out as far as 2040 but to review supply balances as part of a regular commitment to building the supply sustainably.
“There are large uncertainties on feedstock availability and how much will be available to UK aviation… we are consulting based on the use of feedstock availability ranges,” the UK document states.
“We want to show sufficient ambition so that we drive investment in SAF and are not left behind by international competitors. However, if we are too ambitious and set targets that cannot be met, we… risk undermining the industry should the ambitious targets need to be reduced in the future.”
The UK approach sets out three scenarios – high, low, and medium – for consultation and contemplates a push to attain 10% SAF blending by 2030 across all scenarios, and then kicking on to a 32% blend rate by 2040 under the most ambitious scenario.
The UK consumed just over 6 million tonnes of jet fuel in 2020 – the latest year for which data from the Office of National Statistics is available, but the figures are markedly down on the back of Covid-related shutdowns.
Before that, the UK averaged consumption of 15.1 million tonnes in the five preceding years – giving an approximate need for 4.8 million mt of SAF by 2040.
The UK’s consultation document lists 2022 SAF supply at 26 million litres, amounting to around 21,000 tonnes – illustrating the scale of the ramp-up needed in the space of just 15 years.
While SAF holds a relatively small place in the UK fuel supply, the supply of biodiesels has been a great success, with the latest available government data showing 1.3 million liters of conventional biodiesel supplied up to November 2022.
Alongside that, 197 million liters of hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) – high-quality renewable diesel – was also delivered, with both grades heavily dependent upon waste-based feeds like UCO for their production.
Again, provisional UK data shows that 92% of feedstocks used to produce biodiesel in the UK in 2022 came from waste-based sources, with Chinese used cooking oil the biggest single contributor, accounting for 12% of the total fuel supply.
Both HVO and UCO are key elements helping the UK meet its current road fuel decarbonisation targets, but as the pressure to increase SAF production intensifies, trade sources feared that the dash for SAF could see existing HVO producers switch to SAF.
“Given the tax credits and the mandates, no one is going to be making HVO,” a second UK-based trade source told Fastmarkets Agriculture, in a dynamic that could leave heavy haulage firms struggling to meet their decarbonisation goals.
That could drive trucks towards the adoption of biomethane powertrains, as heavy goods vehicles are unlikely to move to electrification.
Nonetheless, for UK-based SAF start-up Velocys, the consultation was met positively with the measures offering a guaranteed level of demand and creating a long-term requirement to supply SAF.
Velocys is currently developing its Altalto plant at Immingham on the north-east coast of the UK, with a nameplate capacity to produce 20 million gallons (91 million liters) of sustainable fuel production every year.
The plant is expected to consume half a million tonnes of commercial, industrial, and municipal solid waste and was awarded £27 million ($33.4 million) in funding from the UK’s Department for Transport in December 2022.