#10 The Changing Skies of Aviation: Chris discusses the intersection of aviation and environmental sustainability with Nancy Young

About This Episode

Embark on a transformative exploration with Nancy Young, a vanguard in the sphere of environmental law and sustainability, as she unfolds her journey from the halls of Capitol Hill to the cutting edge of eco-friendly aviation. Our conversation takes a deep dive into the complexities of marrying the world of air travel with the imperatives of environmental stewardship. As the Chief Sustainability Officer at GEVO and with a remarkable history at Airlines for America, Nancy shares her seasoned perspectives on pioneering climate initiatives and shaping the industry’s sustainable transformation. Her experiences advising the UN on sustainable transport shine a light on the intricate challenges and triumphs encountered in steering aviation onto a greener flight path.

This episode is a treasure trove for those intrigued by the potential and hurdles of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Listen as we unravel the early awakenings within the aviation industry that led to the creation of CAAFI, and the collaborative milestones with ASTM International that paved the way for jet fuel innovation. Nancy illuminates the minimal adjustments airlines need to make for SAF adoption, the bright economic prospects it holds, and its critical role in mitigating the environmental impact of contrails. With the industry’s SAF usage poised for significant growth, we analyze the strategies and research aimed at curbing the warming effects of vapor trails, all in the pursuit of a sustainable future that keeps our skies open and our planet cooler.

Podcast Transcript

Chris Glass: 0:00
Hi everybody and welcome to another episode of the Jump Seat. We have an exciting season of podcasts coming up for everybody, and today I’m really excited to be talking to one of the leading experts on sustainable fuel and where the industry is going when it comes to that. Nancy Young. Nancy, welcome to the podcast.

Nancy Young: 0:20
Oh, very glad to be here.

Chris Glass: 0:22
Excellent, let’s start off by getting to know you a little bit better. Give me a little bit about your background.

Nancy Young: 0:28
Well, I am an environmental and sustainability attorney going way, way, way back, but over time I got really interested in those win-win environmental and sustainability solutions, working with companies, and I was in private practice for many years. But then, having had airlines as clients, I got that aviation thing in my blood. So I spent many years as the head of environment and sustainability for the trade association for the North American Airlines primarily the US airlines Airlines for America and did a lot of work to advance the climate solutions and other environmental solutions for aviation on an international level. And one of those key solutions besides aircraft efficiency, besides doing things with the technology is really what can you do with the fuel? And so I was really privileged to be part of a group that defined how to do alternative jet fuel, sustainable aviation fuel for aviation, and in my current part of my career I decided well, I’ve been doing the policy for that for a long, long time, so now let’s see if I can do it for a company that’s making sustainable aviation fuel. So I am the chief sustainability officer now at GEVO, which is an alternative jet fuel and renewable fuel producer, and we’re working in pilot scale there, and I also have had the privilege, with this background, to be invited to be on the Flight Aerospace Solutions Board, and in doing that, I’m really loving working with a company that integrates a number of environmental and weather solutions for aviation.

Chris Glass: 2:21
Well, you know, I find it funny that you started off by saying you got aviation in your blood and it becomes just all encompassing for you. That is, every single guest we’ve had on the jump seat is well, I didn’t mean to start an aviation and then I ended up spending my whole career working there because it’s such a dynamic industry. So that’s. That’s super exciting. I know one of the things I’m super passionate here at flight is to look at lowering APU burn at the gate with some of the products we make and really leaning on the efficiency side of it, and you hit on the other side of that as efficiency can only take you so far. But I wanted to talk a little bit about how you got to where you are today. So some interesting facts. I know you started off as a legislative assistant, so can you tell me about how you got started in Washington DC?

Nancy Young: 3:11
Yeah, sure. So I’m from the Midwest in the United States and I read an interesting article about being a congressional page and I was chosen to be a congressional page and worked on the House floor and the House of Representatives and my senior year in high school and then when I when I talked about the aviation bug, I guess my first bug was legislation and policy and and how to make those kinds of sausage making work Right. So after university I came back and worked on the Hill as a legislative assistant and really I managed for a congressman, the social issues, the environmental issues and the like, but determined that to be more effective I should go to law school and so I did do that and that brought together a lot of my interests. In fact I was the editor in chief of something called the, the Harvard Journal on legislation, and came back to Washington and have applied those skills, not actually on the Hill since then or in in literal politics, but I would say politics and policy adjacent, working with various entities around the world actually not just in the United States and government policy regulations and and again coming back to really a lot of people think of it as a punitive thing, but it’s really looking for win-win solutions.

Chris Glass: 4:39
Right, and that led you to the UN advisory Council on Sustainable Transport. Can you talk to me a little bit about that, because we don’t get a lot of guests on the show that have been on the Hill, that have been working with the UN. That’s all very exciting, so give me a little bit more on that.

Nancy Young: 4:59
So, those of us with the back, what back to you, chris? With aviation in our blood? We know that the international civil aviation organization, iko, is a United Nations body that set standards and recommended practices for international aviation so we can fly from country to country and in the work that I’ve been doing for IKO or with IKO on its committee on aviation environmental protection for a number of years, from that, the United Nations Secretary General at that time, that was Bonke Moon, had put together a sustainable mobility advisory council really aimed at how do we, on a global basis across modes of transport, ensure sustainability, and that’s safety, that’s environment, that’s economic, it’s really that integrated thing. So I was on it was a two year appointment for that particular task and I got to spend some time actually with the Secretary General, but I would say probably most significantly with leaders in different modes of transport from around the world and coming up with recommendations that the United Nations could continue to work towards in sustainable mobility.

Chris Glass: 6:21
So when you say other industries, that wasn’t just limited to aviation, was that limited or was that all forms of transportation?

Nancy Young: 6:30
Yeah, no, it was road transport, aviation, rail, maritime, and the interesting thing is there were two representatives from each of those modes, so of course we had others supporting us in our work, but there were really eight principles working on that process from around the world, literally from different countries and the like.

Chris Glass: 6:59
That’s really exciting. It seems kind of like an oxymoron to be talking about sustainability and air travel and sustainable fuels and air travel and climate change and air travel. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you’ve navigated both being supportive of looking at solutions to the problems yet being supportive of air travel, Because we can’t just close down airports and not have aircraft, but we’ve got to find a way to do it in the right way. So if you could talk a little bit about that and how you ended up getting so into sustainable fuel.

Nancy Young: 7:40
Yeah, no, it’s a great question and I think a lot of it flows from how visible the aviation industry is rather than the actual facts about its sustainability. So if you look at on a global basis, aviation flying today represents about 3% of the global carbon dioxide emissions and the airlines and companies like flight aerospace solutions are very focused on continuing to improve that fuel efficiency and even get that amount down.

Chris Glass: 8:18
I would say people don’t know that it’s only 3%. People would probably assume it’s a lot more. They see Taylor Swift flying from Japan to the Super Bowl and they go. This is what’s driving the greenhouse gases. But I’m surprised it’s only 3%. That seems low.

Nancy Young: 8:32
Yeah, well, I think you’re right there, which is, essentially airlines are very driven to be very fuel efficient. In fact, business aviation is as well, and the manufacturers of aircraft engines and then service providers and hardware and software providers like flight, are very focused on that fuel efficiency that directly relates to carbon dioxide efficiency. I think some of that attention. If you look at a business aviation jet or a private aviation jet, a lot of the folks there are helping lead in purchasing the very brand new opportunity of sustainable aviation fuel and doing carbon offsetting and the like.

Chris Glass: 9:16

Nancy Young: 9:17
Way back in 2009,. In fact, the global airline industry set climate targets, and those were fuel efficiency improvements through 2020 and carbon neutral growth after that, and then in 2050, a 50% reduction in net carbon dioxide emissions. Then in 2021, the US airlines, with the Canadian airlines and others, set a net zero by 2050 goal, and really that’s now the global goal across aviation. It’s been adopted by all of the manufacturers, airports, international airlines around the world. So everybody’s focused on that, and business aviation is as well. But it doesn’t mean that we’ve solved the problem. And here it is. We want to continue to fly and more and more people want to fly, and if you don’t continue to improve, you are going to have an increase in that climate impact, and so that’s where the real focus is Not just fuel efficiency what you can do with the aircraft, the airframe and engine but what can you do with the fuel? We’re talking a lot about electric aviation, but that’s going to be a long time before you have that for anything other than a very small aircraft.

Chris Glass: 10:37
So we just went through a pretty big cold snap in Canada and a lot of the electric vehicles had trouble keeping up their battery power and whatnot, so it seems like that technology is a few years away for sure.

Nancy Young: 10:49
Yes, I mean there are a couple of big issues with you know that, with airlines being able to go electric and and, and that would certainly be one of them but it’s really getting the amount of power that you need to take off and land and it’s just a tremendous amount of power. And the battery requirements or other requirements for that Show that we’re not going to see that in a midsize or large aircraft until about 2040, 2050. So what do you do in the meantime? You switch the fuel.

Chris Glass: 11:21
So let’s talk about switching the fuel. What goes into that and how far have we come in sustainable fuel?

Nancy Young: 11:30
Well, the interesting thing is, when we as an aviation industry at the time and interested stakeholders said what do we do? This was early 2000s we realized that we needed to switch the fuel. And then you think, wait a minute, jet fuel has to be extremely safe and at that time you could only make jet fuel out of a fossil based petroleum, basically. And so, starting back in around 2006, in the United States, we founded the commercial aviation alternative fuels initiative, cafe, to basically figure out how are we going to create a jet fuel specification that allows, rather than a fossil source of carbon? It allows a biomass source of carbon, so that you are, instead of basically taking carbon out of the ground that’s been there for millions of years, you’re recycling carbon from bio material that’s sucking up carbon from the air today and going back in there. So we worked with the international standards body, which is ASTM international, that controls the jet fuel specification, and created a pathway to show how that biomass instead of petroleum can be safe. If you do XYZ and ABCDEF and so on. And so there is a special specification that each sustainable aviation fuel manufacturer has to meet. They have to go through a process to get that approved and I’m glad to say that today, under the ASTM specifications, there are eight approved pathways for sustainable aviation fuel and those pathways are a combination of the technology to make the fuel and the actual bio material biomass to do that. And it allows for innovation because if a new technology and biomass combination comes up, they go through a multi year process demonstrating that they can meet that jet fuel specification that we set way back when.

Chris Glass: 13:51
Wow. So at this point, where are we in sustainable fuel? So I see airlines are releasing press releases. They talk about it in their quarterly annual share reports saying that their goal is to have this percentage or that percentage. How far away are we from an airline having 100% sustainable fuel versus now? I hear the low one, two, three, four percent.

Nancy Young: 14:17
Yeah, I think 100% is an exciting number, but I think for a long way from that and it is really a scale-up process, right? So today aviation has less than 1% of jet fuel is sustainable aviation fuel today. Why is that? Because it’s a brand new industry and we are in the scale-up process of doing that, and so what the plan is is to increase that all the way through 2050. So in 2030, most of the airlines have a goal of five or 10% sustainable aviation fuel and then that ramps up farther. What you’re also seeing in countries like Canada, the European Union, japan, is contemplating such a thing mandates for certain percentages of sustainable aviation fuel. That actually will help with that scale-up. Let the market know that there is a real. There’s a tremendous amount of demand today by the airlines. There’s just not a lot of production and it also right now sustainable aviation fuel costs more than regular jet fuel, which you would expect for a brand new kind of fuel. So we’ve got to ramp it up and that’s what my company, among others, are working to do, to be able to produce significant quantities of this fuel by 2030, but then ramp it up all the way through 2050.

Chris Glass: 15:50
Is there anything airlines have to do differently when using sustainable fuel versus? Is there any retrofits to the aircraft? Is there any changing to the fueling process, Like, what do airlines have to do to be able to ingest sustainable fuel?

Nancy Young: 16:07
When our coalitions worked with ASTM to create the jet fuel specification, it was so that this fuel would be able to be dropped into the aircraft as is in a mixture with petroleum jet fuel. And the reason you need to mix it is and I like to put it this way actually, in a way, sustainable aviation fuel is cleaner than petroleum jet fuel. It doesn’t have certain of the characteristics like sulfur that’s in petroleum, naturally. Why does that matter? Because for 60, 70 plus years we relied on having the properties of sulfur and other things that just come along for the ride with petroleum for being able to create the seals that you use on an aircraft and in the maintenance process to deliver the fuel. It’s rubber kind of stuff. It needs that lubricity. So when you have a cleaner, neat, sustainable aviation fuel, it doesn’t have those things along for the ride. So today we drop it into existing aircraft along with a mixture of petroleum based fuel up to 50%, and right now the manufacturers of all those systems to deliver the fuel are working on changing the gaskets and other things that you need to change, so you don’t need those impurities in a way, along for the ride that come with petroleum. So it gets back to your question about 100% SAF, which is by around 2030,.

Chris Glass: 17:49
The manufacturers expect to have revised the systems enough that over time, they’ll get replaced and allow for 100% neat jet fuel as we scale up, and I can imagine aircraft manufacturers have invested interest in making sure they’re bringing aircraft to the market that can really take advantage of SAF in a way that their airlines can take advantage of. That’s cool. That’s really neat. I find it. You know, there’s so many contradictions and there’s so many different twists and turns in the climate discussion, but one of the fallacies that I think is out there is that it will kill the economy to start moving towards green initiatives, but it sounds like this is creating a brand new industry that wasn’t there before. That’s going to be good for the environment and going to create jobs and create industry. So it’s interesting to see companies popping up and the demand being there. So do you see this as like an investment opportunity, a growth opportunity for individual investors or governments to get behind, as something that might be good for the economy as well?

Nancy Young: 19:00
Well, very definitely. I mean, we’re talking about energy transition all over the world, and so it makes tremendous sense that you would have you know for aircraft that are going to be required to have liquid fuel for the next four or five decades or whatever, that you would have an energy transition like this. And the demand is definitely there, the will is definitely there, the technology is definitely there. But, chris, your point is right on which is we’re at that stage where the focus is on commercial scale up. So it’s a combination of companies like mine doing the work, investors getting behind this and governments also doing their part to support the scale up process. In the United States, for example, we have what’s called the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge, which is trying to align the array of projects and processes that the federal government here supports to get to 3 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel by 2030. And Canada and other countries have similar programs, for example, in the Canadian report to the International Civil Aviation Organization about really what the country is doing to support sustainable aviation. Sustainable aviation fuel plays a big part, as do the types of things that flight aerospace solutions provides in terms of fuel efficiency, monitoring the aircraft, understanding weather patterns, being able to report those weather patterns and really a new and emerging environmental concern for aviation is the warming impact that contrails have, and solutions like flights weather solutions are enabling better understanding of that, both in terms of what is the issue there and warming from contrails, and what do we do about it?

Chris Glass: 21:11
I’m glad you brought that up because that was going to be one of the next things that I talked about. I know the media loves to talk about chemtrails and seeding the air with crazy chemicals and all that kind of stuff. Being in the industry and being with flight, I know different, but can you talk to me a little bit about weather and a little bit about contrails and how that has an effect on global warming and why this is going to be something that airlines really need to pay attention to going forward?

Nancy Young: 21:39
Absolutely so. Contrails are pretty simple, as opposed to what the conspiracy theories say about them. So contrails basically there’s water vapor that comes out of an aircraft engine when you combust the fuel and it’s just water vapor. That’s what you’re seeing up there With a little bit. When you combust fuel, you get some particulate matter, and when that combines with atmospheric conditions, then you see that what looks like a cloud or a vapor trail, that’s a contrail. What can happen with that is it can reflect. It can either trap more of the heat coming off of the earth or it can allow penetration of certain of the rays from the sun through. And researchers say that it has a net warming effect because it is, on average, trapping more heat in the earth’s atmosphere to have those kind of almost like a barrier right. So what you want to do is understand those effects that an aircraft has, and that’s where a lot of the research is today. But then you want to figure out can you avoid atmospheric conditions that would then have that water vapor that is necessarily going to come from the aircraft? Can you avoid the conditions that will create the content trail or minimize it? And so solutions like what are the weather and atmospheric conditions, the vapor already in the atmosphere, plus what the aircraft will put in there. What creates that? How do you avoid it? And then add a very important question If you avoid it through flight,

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