Southwest has announced new support for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) initiatives.
The company also announced that it would team up with two private energy companies, Marathon Petroleum Corporation and Phillips 66, to advance similar SAF programs.
These initiatives to develop sustainable alternatives to conventional aviation fuel could help solve one of the major barriers in the way of widespread renewable energy adoption — powering craft like jumbo jets, which can’t rely on electric batteries for fuel.
How Southwest Is Investing in SAFs
Sustainable aviation fuels are a low-carbon alternative to conventional aviation fuel. Investment in major innovations that make SAFs more practical could help significantly cut down on emissions.
The day after Southwest, which has collaborated with NREL since 2019, announced its ongoing support for the Laboratory, the NREL announced the development of a new biorefining process for the creation of SAF.
The biorefining process turns wet waste into a new kind of organic SAF. Wet waste is made of organic waste like food waste, wastewater sludge, or waste fats and oils. These wastes are typically sent to landfills, where they contribute up to 6% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Finding commercially viable refining processes for SAFs could help airlines like Southwest cut down on the growing emissions produced by air travel, which constitutes an additional 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The exact carbon savings of sustainable aviation fuel varies depending on the composition of the fuel and the production process used.
The Potential Impact of New SAF Initiatives
Along with other emissions-reducing air travel practices — like the use of cap-and-trade systems — SAFs could be key in reducing air travel emissions.
Growing awareness of how personal behavior contributes to global emissions may also trigger a shift towards increased personal responsibility and consumer behavior that prioritizes sustainable options. Together, these changes could potentially make air travel as sustainable as travel by electric vehicle.
While battery technology is rapidly improving, a battery that used modern tech and stored enough energy to power a jumbo jet would be too heavy. While new, ultralight alternatives to existing batteries may solve this problem, they can’t be manufactured at scale yet.
Similar challenges also exist for container ships, which typically rely on high-emissions heavy fuel oil for power.
Sustainable alternatives to conventional fuel, however, may be able to provide significant reductions in carbon emissions produced by global transportation while this battery technology is developed.
Hydrogen fuel cells, for example, may provide an alternative for heavy fuel oil. Sustainable aviation fuel could fill a similar niche in air travel. SAF would also help handle the growing problem of food waste, which is already a crisis in much of the developed world — where, on average, around 95-115 kilograms of food per capita (209-253 pounds) is wasted every year.
Southwest Helps Lead the Charge on Sustainable Fuel in Air Travel
Initiatives like those Southwest is investing in will help pave the way towards a sustainable transportation industry. Low-carbon alternatives to aircraft fuel will provide a valuable stopgap while researchers continue to develop ultralight batteries suitable for air travel.
Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. Jane covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, green technology, renewable energy and more.
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