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Calgary startup aims to launch sustainable aviation fuel facilities on the Prairies

In this Dec. 11, 2019, file photo, an United Airlines Boeing 737 Max airplane takes off in the rain at Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Wash. The airline wants to use more sustainable aviation fuel as part of a plan to decrease its carbon emission intensity by 50% from 2019 to 2035. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press - image credit)
In this Dec. 11, 2019, file photo, an United Airlines Boeing 737 Max airplane takes off in the rain at Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Wash. The airline wants to use more sustainable aviation fuel as part of a plan to decrease its carbon emission intensity by 50% from 2019 to 2035. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press - image credit)

For anyone who has flown with United Airlines over the last year or so, you've likely seen the in-flight video promoting the company's first Chief Trash Officer — Oscar the Grouch.

It's all part of a marketing campaign to promote the airline's ambitions to use more sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in the future. SAF is biofuel that can be made from food waste and agricultural products. It's more expensive than jet fuel, but it's less polluting and can already be used by aircraft without any engine modifications.

It's one of many potential low-carbon fuels that was a point of focus at the CERAWeek by S&P Global energy conference in Houston this week. SAF could potentially help reduce emissions, but faces many challenges and years of development before eventually perhaps becoming mainstream.

Calgary-based startup Cap Clean Energy wants to produce SAF in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba using crop residue, such as wheat straw and other byproducts of grains and oil seeds. Typically, they tend to be chopped up and put back on the fields or used for animal bedding. Other companies have used corn or sugar cane.

At CERAWeek, Cap Clean Energy announced a collaboration with ABB, a global electrification and automation company with more 100,000 employees.

At this point, the startup is in the early development stages, with a target of beginning production in 2027. For now, Cap Clean Energy is pursuing government grants, raising investment and developing the overall project. For a startup with just two employees, there are many hurdles to overcome.

"It's a challenge, but we see a lot of business opportunities," said company president and CEO Steve Polvi, pointing to the aviation industry's growing emissions.

"For those companies, it makes a huge difference. When you look at their options to decarbonize, it's a very hard to abate sector," said Polvi, in an interview in Houston. "They absolutely need sustainable aviation fuel to achieve their goals."

Steve Polvi is president of Cap Clean Energy, a startup company that has spent the last two years developing projects to produce sustainable aviation fuel from crop residues.
Steve Polvi is president of Cap Clean Energy, a startup company that has spent the last two years developing projects to produce sustainable aviation fuel from crop residues.

Steve Polvi is president of Cap Clean Energy, a startup company that has spent the last two years developing projects to produce sustainable aviation fuel from crop residues. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Air transport represents between two and three per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, although there is concern that number could grow as air travel expands. The United States has set a goal of producing 11 billion litres of SAF per year by 2030.

"It's not only large companies that are going to be key to making some of these low carbon industries go forward," said Brandon Spencer, president of the energy division at ABB, about partnering with a startup.

"That's the exciting thing about the energy transition," he said.

The carbon footprint of SAF varies depending on the production method and the transportation of the fuel, although it can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 85 per cent compared to conventional jet fuel.

In Canada, the federal government's Aviation Climate Action Plan points to how SAF could help with decarbonizing aviation. A coalition of air carriers wants the government to help promote the production of the fuel.

Trudeau International Airport in Montreal began providing SAF in 2016, while Pearson International Airport in Toronto began providing it in 2021.

Producing SAF is one challenge, but there's also the need to transport the fuel to airports and ensure the price is reasonable enough that airlines will actually buy it.

There are also concerns about the inconsistency of agricultural waste products, and whether passengers will pay more for flights using a lower-carbon fuel.

Those are some of the reasons this type of fuel also has its detractors.

LISTEN | Can sustainable fuel reduce the cost of air travel?:

Calgary-based Enbridge is involved in many energy-related businesses and projects, from fossil fuels and hydrogen to renewables and carbon sequestration, but president Greg Ebel isn't interested in SAF right now because it doesn't make financial sense.

"When it comes to airlines, I think people will be extremely careful in trying new fuels," he said. "[Airlines] are finding ways to make planes more efficient and that's probably the better way to go."

Still, the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization is targeting a "long-term global aspirational goal" of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Transitioning to SAF is a big part of that, especially considering how the long distances and the immense power required by aircraft don't lend themselves easily to electrification. Hydrogen is another potential energy source, although its development for aviation is still in its infancy.