Many Roads Will Lead to Sustainability, EBACE Panel Hears

From left to right, Pipistrel's Tine Tomažič, Alder Fuels' Brian Sherbacow, Hydroplane's Anita Sengupta and 4AIR's Kennedy Ricci with moderator Lisa Stark.
Credit: Mark Wagner/Aviation Images

It is time to back up the strong words with urgent action if the business-aviation sector is to meet the ambitious sustainability goals it has set itself, a lively panel discussion heard on the first day of EBACE. 

The lunchtime session found representatives of innovative companies representing different parts of the sustainable aviation ecosystem largely in agreement about their ultimate objectives. Similarly, speakers accepted that there are going to be different ways of getting there, and that it is to everyone's advantage that there are a multiplicity of methods of getting there. 

"I would liken it to a multi-lane highway," said Bryan Sherbacow, president and CEO of Alder Fuels, referred to by NBAA president Ed Bolen as “the father” of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). "We need multiple activities going on. A vision of what might be ideal and singularly focusing on that is not practical. [There are a] variety of different technologies, [and] they're actually complementary in a lot of ways."

Providing practical examples is also key. Sherbacow offered his own formulation on the idea: "Doing, in the here and now, educates us." But it was Pipstrel's chief technology officer, Tine Tomažič, who emphasized how central this aspect will be. 

"There's an incredible power in demonstrations, because they don't only engage the technical community, they also engage the end-users, the policy-makers, as well as the future engineers, as well as the operators, human resources," Tomažič said. "Let's face it: people who will be solving the grand challenge toward the 2050 grand goal are now maybe in primary schools, maybe in high schools, but not further along than that. We have to spark their imagination—not only that it's possible, but that it's the right career choice. 

"Demonstrations are powerful for something else as well," he added. "History is full of great ideas which didn't work. And the sooner we identify the ones that do not work, to be able to focus on the ones that do, and the complementarity of these excellent ideas, the better."

"Government support is also important; private-sector support is really important," said Anita Sengupta, a former NASA rocket scientist whose startup Hydroplane Ltd is developing a hydrogen powerplant for aviation applications and has received funding from the U.S. Air Force. "With government making investments in new small companies, I think that can really lead to innovation. You see this throughout every sector of our economy—innovation really has come, probably, not from the biggest players but from small startups. That was key for us to be able to start as a company. We're only two years old, but getting the government support, the government funding, the government contracts, is key to that innovation."

Government can also help in another important way, but one that might be easier for resource-constrained elected officials. Reshaping policy can cost a lot less than direct financial investment, yet can still prove transformative. Kennedy Ricci, president of the aviation sustainability solutions provider 4AIR, stressed the need for legislators to adopt intelligent and appropriate regulations to encourage environmentally responsible development. 

"We have to be smart about how we set policy, and what incentives and mandates we align with," he said. "We can use both, but we have to do it intelligently. But I think bringing an element of standardization too. A big challenge we have with our customers is, how do you report the use of SAF? How much SAF do you uplift, and are you reporting that on a weight basis or a volume basis? How do you prove how much better it was? We're going to have the same challenge with hydrogen-electric: where did the electricity come from, and was it green hydrogen? There's a lot of challenges about proving this to be sustainable, and if we can help standardize that, it's going to be helpful."

One telling contribution came from the floor: Leo Knappen, of Bombardier, noted that the sector has "been talking about this—to ourselves to a large degree—for the last three years," and urged industry figures to intensify their efforts. Incentives are all well and good, he argued, but some penalties for non-compliance or laggardly rates of progress may be needed. 

"I'm all for carrots, but we need the stick," he said. "In California we have a carrot. We don't have that in New York State, we don't have that in the state of Texas, we don't have that in the state of Florida, which has large installed bases of operators. If we don't get carrots in there soon we'd better get a stick there soon. I think we have to be broadminded about this. We're running out of time."

But Tomažič remained optimistic, pointing out at the close of the discussion that, if there is as much goodwill as appears evident, this is a sector that can surely get a good way down the road toward what may often seem like an impossible goal. 

"Yeah, 2050 is around the corner," he said. "But 50 years ago we did not carry internet in our pockets. That happened because we all wanted it. And if we all want to start flying differently, cleaner, and maybe closer to where we want to end up at, then there might be a process of innovation like no other that can deliver this wonderful end product in 2050. We have to stay motivated and we have to stay determined."

Angus Batey

Angus Batey has been contributing to various titles within the Aviation Week Network since 2009, reporting on topics ranging from defense and space to business aviation, advanced air mobility and cybersecurity.