Calgary startup aims to launch sustainable aviation fuel facilities on the

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.”

A man in a suit is interviewed in from of a banner showing office towers and trees.
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…

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