Emission-Reducing Aviation Technologies Presented at House Hearing

Emission-Reducing Aviation Technologies Presented at House Hearing

May 20, 2022  | Katie Donahue

This week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation met to discuss different aviation technologies to reduce emissions and help meet climate goals. The hearing, titled “Preparing for Take-Off: Examining Efforts to Address Climate Change at U.S. Airports,” brought together representatives from airports, airlines, and emission-reducing technology manufacturers. These technologies included sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen-powered planes, airport microgrids, and innovations to reduce noise pollution.

Witnesses included:

  • Ann Ardizzone, Vice President, Supply Chain, Alaska Airlines
  • Paul Hoback, Jr., Executive Vice President and Chief Development Officer, Allegheny County Airport Authority
  • Robert Horton, Vice President of Environmental Affairs, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport
  • Pete Bunce, President and CEO, General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA)
  • Jennifer Bies, Director of Environmental Operations, Port of Portland
  • John Plaza, President and CEO, SkyNRG Americas
  • Val Miftakhov, Founder and CEO, ZeroAvia

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is a biofuel produced from sustainable feedstock that is chemically very similar to jet fuel. While Alaska Airlines witness Ann Ardizzone recognized the need for multiple different emission-reducing initiatives, she views SAF as the most effective technology available today. Calling SAF the “critical lever” of the industry, she argues that it is proven to be safe and effective, and can be replaced one for one with jet fuel without needing modifications in aircraft. However, she recognizes SAF’s limitations, with reduced availability due to small production capacity and high costs, with prices 2 to 6 times that of jet fuel, making it not cost-competitive. Plaza spoke of the need to scale the SAF industry and informed Representatives of SkyNRG Americas’ efforts to create SAF from waste-based feedstocks, all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent compared to jet fuel.

Witnesses made many recommendations to lawmakers for better SAF policy:

  • Approve SAF for blending up to 50 percent with kerosene (Plaza)
  • The SAF Grand Challenge is a collaboration between DOE, DOT, and USDA to reduce the SAF price while researching lower-emission initiatives in aviation. Continue the SAF tax credits within the existing program while working with EPA for better policy on SAF taxes (Plaza)*
  • Support the Sustainable Skies Act (H.R. 3440/S. 2263), which supports the SAF blenders tax credit for the next ten years, driving down the SAF price and making it commercially viable (Ardizzone)*
  • Support the AERO Act (S.3125), which would create a grant program at DOT to produce, transport, and supply SAF (Ardizzone)
  • Expand the Voluntary Airport Low Emissions (VALE) Program to allow more airports to participate – Seattle and Portland airports are not eligible (Ardizzone)
  • Expedite approvals for new SAF feedstock, as current regulations are crushing innovation (the DOE’s list of approved feedstocks for SAF production is here) (Ardizzone)

(*Section 136203 of the House-passed Build Back Better Act provided a SAF tax credit of up to $1.75 per gallon for the next five years, but that legislation has stalled in the Senate.)

Realistically, Ardizzone believes it will take “several decades” for SAF to be prevalent enough to support the industry. Nevertheless, in the interim period, some corporations are leading the way in SAF investments. For example, Microsoft has invested in SAF-fueled travel because of its commitment to curb work travel emissions. Ardizzone contended that partnerships like these make SAF a reality even when it is far more costly than jet fuel.

Hydrogen-powered aircraft

Less of the committee’s focus was on hydrogen-powered aircraft, though some asked questions about the concept. Miftakhov, as the CEO of ZeroAvia, spoke about the potential for hydrogen, particularly for large fixed-wing aircraft. However, the technology is a few years down the line, and will require significant infrastructure changes to airports to either store or create hydrogen on-site. Full committee chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR) questioned the sustainability of hydrogen production, pointing out that brown or blue hydrogen production still use fossil fuels – Miftakhov said the type of hydrogen would depend on production capabilities.

Airport microgrids

Hoback spoke about the Pittsburgh airport’s microgrid, which generates all the electricity for the airport. Constructed on top of a landfill, this microgrid is powered by 10,000 solar panels and five on-site natural gas wells. The microgrid is maintained by energy company Peoples Natural Gas, and the company profits by selling excess energy back to the grid. Since establishing this microgrid, told Hoback, the airport has saved over $1 million – more than 12 percent of total operating costs. While this is an impressive initiative, Delegate Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC) questioned the reliance on natural gas, asking when the microgrid will go fully emission-free. Hoback responded that they are prepared to double their solar farm. Nevertheless, one source claims that solar only makes up 13 percent of the peak power, leaving the grid heavily reliant on natural gas. When asked about advice for other airports looking to create a microgrid, Hoback recommended securing outside partnerships, as microgrids are not eligible for Airport Improvement Program funding. Success comes from public-private partnerships, he expressed, and while the airport reaps the benefits of the microgrid, it was funded completely by the private sector and did not use airport capital expenses. Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) voiced his support for public-private industry collaborations of this nature.

Noise pollution

Rep. Nikema Williams (D-GA) and Del. Holmes Norton (D-DC), both representing districts with heavily-flown flight paths, both asked questions about technologies to reduce airplane noise. Bunce noted that while aircraft have gotten quieter, we will continue to see noise reductions due to improvements in engine technology, better airplane design, and new techniques such as 3D printing parts with metal, making the plane lighter. Bunce also mentioned NextGen air traffic control investments. More precise approaches, enabled by NextGen, mean noise is less dispersed but more concentrated in one exact flight path.

Problems with FAA

Chair DeFazio, Ranking Member Graves, Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), and Bunce all took the hearing as an opportunity to voice frustrations with the FAA, beyond the emissions-reduction scope of the hearing. All complained about the bureaucracy of the agency and agreed it needs to regulate and approve changes more quickly. Bunce also voiced his concern with FAA staffing, saying that two of his aircraft certification offices have been told to expect a response time of 90 days, up from 30. He gave the example of one company that wanted to switch from one LED landing light to another – they put in a request in September and did not hear back until April.

Conclusion

SAF is available immediately in limited quantities, but cannot meet price parity without tax breaks and a bigger market share. Other innovations mentioned are still years away from commercial and scalable readiness. With the aviation industry projecting growth in the future, it is even more critical to invest in more sustainable technologies – Rep. DeFazio pointed out that other sectors are already ahead and have better off-the-shelf emission reduction technologies. Yet, it is not for lack of trying as aviation is notoriously difficult to decarbonize compared to its land-based counterparts. Ahead of the 2023 FAA reauthorization, lawmakers agreed on the (bipartisan) resolution to reduce emissions in the aviation sector.

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