By Tribune Media Services
Erin Cooke, San Francisco International Airport’s director of sustainability, says she found her professional “sweet-spot” at the juncture of environmental advocacy, public service and capitalism.
As environmental chief of the state’s second largest airport, Cooke has become a national proponent of sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, an alternative energy source derived from tallow, fats and vegetable matter that burns cleaner, is more expensive to produce and is, thus, less common than conventional jet fuel.
Cooke’s efforts to expand SAF led her to build partnerships at SFO with aviation, logistics and energy firms to overcome SAF’s supply chain obstacles. In partnership with a variety of other SAF advocates, Cooke successfully lobbied the California Air Resources Board to expand the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) to offer a $1.25 per gallon incentive for SAF over conventional fuel and level the playing field against conventional fossil-based aviation fuel. California is currently one of the world’s most competitive markets for SAF, which is more popular in Europe.
Cooke said she found her calling, enlisting the help of private businesses in environmental efforts, early on in her career when she advised Utah ski resorts that water conservation would increase their snowpack and bottom line.
SFO hired her to implement a five-year strategic plan, starting in 2016, to achieve carbon neutrality at the airport. Here is an edited version of a recent conversation with Cooke:
Q: What does an airport sustainability director study in college?
A: I got an undergraduate degree in natural resource science, and in business management, largely because I had an amazing mentor at the time who had stayed on top of what was happening at the UN, and made a suggestion that there will be a convergence of applying business practices, to really have environmental gains.
Q: So business and the environment. So, you found that intersection at SFO?
A: I was hired, and recruited to SFO because I was basically already doing sustainability work for a city. And you know SFO — a 5,000-acre campus, 18 million square feet — it is basically a city and so, my task was they had actually just adopted a strategic plan that was focused on zero net energy, carbon neutrality, zero waste water and balancing a lot of really big ambitions.
And so, when we really sat down and took a look at what the impacts of the airport are, the majority of them really do arise from aviation and aircraft activity. Every year, like many organizations, we do a greenhouse gas emissions inventory. What it essentially says is less than 1% of the total emissions arise from the activity of the airport facility so, 99% of our emissions are from the supply chain that we have and about 70% of that actually arise from aircraft activity: the taking off, landing and taxiing of aircraft.
Because San Francisco International Airport is located in a region that continues to be one of those hardest hit by wildfires that are fueled by our changing climate, we really want to yield operational benefits for our airport, but also health benefits for our passengers workers and surrounding communities, specifically now as we’re looking for a safe and sustainable return for campus in our region.
Q: What is SAF? What is it made of? Where is it made?
A: It’s not that different than renewable diesel, in terms of its feedstocks. The production facilities that are serving SFO are currently using waste products — so fats, oils and greases — to make the sustainable aviation fuel that they’re bringing to our campus. There’s also the ability to use organic waste to make and process sustainable aviation fuel and the production facility.
Besides World Energy, which is located in Paramount, California, that’s using those fats, oils and greases, the next closest facility to us is already being commercialized in Reno, Nevada, and they actually use organic waste. They’re next to a landfill, opportunistically. And then the other facility that’s also kind of being commercialized uses waste woody biomass, so they can use forest residues waste woodstock and other things, and they’re Red Rock Biofuels, and they’re located in Oregon.
And, yeah, those are embedded in the supply chain.
Q: How does sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, help SFO reduce greenhouse emissions?
A: Sustainable aviation fuel is a drop-in-fuel, it’s blended, it’s safe, it’s tested. It’s been used for over a decade. The challenge is just that it has not received the same amount of incentive or investments as road fuels, So it hasn’t been able to scale as quickly. And so we saw this opportunity to really get involved in trying to resolve for that and try to really elevate and uplift that on our campus.
Q: While you have collaborators in the aviation and fuel industries, SFO has been a main driver of SAF use in the United States?
A: Yes, SFO is the first to convene this level of collaborators and coalition of advocates. We are the second to do a SAF feasibility study, the first to look deeply at financial mechanisms where we can push further. A concept from that study was used by the World Economic Forum and Rocky Mountain Institute to recently launch the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance.
We also have the largest volume delivery of SAF via the largest commitments of airlines and producers that are all active members of our network and ecosystem.
Q: Who are some of the companies involved in SAF at SFO, and how has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your program?
A: In 2018 we formed a sustainable aviation fuel working group, and we were really intentional about who we included in that. So, that membership includes alternative fuel producers, conventional suppliers pipeline operators, airlines, and then actually multiple airports, it’s not just ours now.
We come to the table … since COVID it’s about every quarter. And we talk through plans of how to accelerate sustainable aviation on our campus.
Roughly over 100 companies are involved in various ways.
Q: How have SAF volumes at SFO changed during the pandemic?
A: Over the course of COVID, we kind of went from an airport that was starting to get a few molecules with more of a dribble of sustainable aviation fuel in the one to two million gallon range out of over a billion that’s consumed at our airport in a typical year. We estimate that from the two producers that are supplying our airport, we’re probably receiving around 10 million gallons now. And that’s largely driven by the fact that JetBlue, Alaska, American Delta DHL, those are some of the airlines that have really elevated their commitment to return to service.
Q: OK. So these airlines agree to contract for SAF to fulfill a small portion of their overall fuel needs?
A: Yeah and it’s partially just due to the fact that the economics don’t net in their favor. It’s still, you know, incredibly costly to buy a gallon of sustainable aviation fuel. You know, in California, again we’ve established ourselves to really have the market for SAF because we’re giving you know about $1.25 more per gallon than any other location because of the low carbon fuel standard.
Q. Do you foresee SAF increasing its market share?
A: There are many production facilities who have the choice to make renewable diesel or make sustainable aviation fuel. And there’s a very, very, very modest production loss with SAF, very, very small under 1%, but when you’re making volumes at such a high level, and you’re incentivized to make renewable diesel, you’re going to make renewable diesel.
One of our main advocacy points is to convince the California Legislature or the federal government, and there’s actually a federal bill moving forward right now, to make SAF cost competitive and recognize the benefits.
If California switches to 5% sustainable aviation fuel, we would reduce about 2 million metric tons of CO2, annually, which is actually like double the aircraft emission activity of SFO. If we’re not able to do that aviation fuel emissions in California will grow to be over 25% of our current emissions just by 2040, and obviously higher by 2050. We see the growth curve.
California’s been leading in all other sectors and we feel that now is the time for aviation.