Shell’s new plan to bolster sustainable aviation fuel

Many players across the corporate world can agree on one thing: We need to decarbonize the aviation industry.

With corporate travel accounting for as much as a third of aviation emissions, businesses have a keen interest in eliminating or abating this huge piece of their carbon footprint. But they can’t do it alone.

“It needs support. It needs support from the entire ecosystem,” said Jan Toschka, president of Shell Aviation. That means travelers, airlines, corporations and fuel suppliers all need to be working together toward a sustainable future of aviation.

And right now, Shell sees that future in sustainable aviation fuel—a jet fuel alternative that’s derived from waste products, biomass or cooking oil, and offers an 80 percent lifecycle emissions reduction compared to conventional fuel.

Shell has partnered with Accenture and American Express Global Business Travel to launch Avelia, a platform that it hopes will bundle the sustainable fuel demand from corporate flyers into one easily trackable data set. The ultimate goal is to send a signal to fuel suppliers that it’s worth investing in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

“We absolutely need to boost the demand,” Toschka said, in order to de-risk investments in the production of SAF and the development of next-generation fuels.

Here’s how Avelia will work: The tool will give corporations the opportunity to buy SAF for their flights using a “book-and-claim” model. That means travelers can pay for the sustainable fuel and claim its benefits, even if the fuel does not end up being used on their specific flight. The promise is that an equivalent amount of fuel will be fed into another aircraft, accomplishing the same overall goal.

Right now, book-and-claim is not a widely accepted form of emissions reduction. Toschka said that a big part of the motivation behind Avelia is to prove the viability of the model, and provide the data necessary to convince auditors of such. The platform will begin as a pilot, with around 1 million gallons of sustainable fuel — the equivalent of 15,000 transatlantic flights, according to Shell.

Collecting data on the viability of book-and-claim will not be a simple task. For one thing, not all sustainable aviation fuel is  created equal. There are different carbon intensities, which means different levels of emissions reduction. 

“The real complexity kicks in when you realize, if you roll out SAF globally, we’re talking about thousands of airports in many, many countries,” Toschka said.

So, how do you track which fuels are being used where, and which travelers get credit for paying for them?

“With so much data and many players involved, there is a risk that the data is not trackable, is not traceable,” Toschka said.

That’s where the other piece of Avelia comes in: Blockchain technology. The platform will use blockchain — known for its ability to track assets on a digital ledger — to securely trace and manage all of this complexity. 

Shell’s decision to partner with Accenture was partly based on the consulting firm’s expertise in blockchain, Toschka said. It also doesn’t hurt that the company’s staff are some of the industry’s most frequent flyers.

“Accenture has a lot of people flying, so Accenture also has some intrinsic motivation to make this work,” Toschka said.

The other partner in this venture, American Express Global Business Travel, describes itself as the “world’s leading B2B travel platform.” Toschka sees this as a big opportunity, as Amex GBT has access to a sizable swath of travelers.

That’s ultimately what Avelia does for Shell: It gives the fuel company a direct line to business travelers.

“The corporate travelers, they have the strongest motivation to get their flying more sustainable,” Toschka said, and are consequently Shell’s best path to increasing the use of SAF.

If Shell is successful in bringing the corporate world on board, and can gain acceptance for the book-and-claim model, there’s potential to widely expand the use of SAF. Toschka sees more customers, more airlines and more segments of the aviation industry as opportunities for the alternative fuel, with the cargo sector, for example, as the natural next step.

“There is a lot of appetite, a lot of demand for sustainably transporting certain kinds of goods,” Toschka said.

Again, bundling and proving that demand is a crucial part of what Avelia is setting out to accomplish. Shell has already started to make its own investments in SAF production — with plants in Rotterdam and Singapore — but Toschka said more investments are needed.

“This whole industry is just developing, and it is much more costly to not only build the plant, but also to have the supply chain in place,” Toschka said. No matter the type of SAF being produced, they are all more cumbersome and, at the moment, not easily scalable.

“We will need to shift into the second, third [generation], more advanced technologies,” Toschka said. He pointed to LanzaJet, a sustainable ethanol startup that Shell has invested in, as an example of these future fuels.

Shell’s investments in SAF fit into its broader strategy of late, which has an increased focus on emissions reduction, in the aviation industry and beyond. The company aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and alongside its SAF initiatives, is pouring lots of money into carbon offsets. Of course, this all comes after Shell’s century-plus history as an oil and gas company, which has contributed — and still does — mightily to greenhouse gas emissions.

Avelia also isn’t the only SAF partnership popping up lately. Shell itself has also partnered with the likes of Amazon and World Energy in schemes to boost demand and production of SAF. Last year, United Airlines created the Eco-Skies Alliance, a partnership with American corporations aimed at tripling the airline’s use of sustainable aviation.

And while there are surely countless other airlines who have their own sustainability programs, these types of collaborations could play a role in lifting up the whole industry — especially the players who don’t have the power or size to do so themselves. 

“There are many, many airlines who are probably not in the position to come up with their own solutions,” Toschka said.

If Shell’s bet pays off, the bundling of corporate demand for SAF could help fill that gap and make the supply and use of the fuel more commonplace.

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