SAA Cargo has been engaging with the Department of Environmental Affairs on the issue. PICTURE: Leon Nicholas

Durban - South African Airways is developing a massive biofuels project to fill up to 50 percent of its aircraft-fuel needs over the next 20 years.

While the main purpose of the project is to reduce the national carrier’s climate change emissions, the airline believes the new “green fuel” plan could also help to contain the rising cost of conventional fossil fuels.

Ian Cruickshank, the head of environmental affairs for SAA, told The Mercury that the airline hoped to develop some supplies of biofuel before 2017, with the help of US plane maker Boeing.

This would be followed by a fully fledged programme to meet half of the airline’s fuel needs with biofuels before 2023 – equivalent to between 350 million and 500 million litres of conventional jet fuel each year.

Cruickshank acknowledged that making jet biofuel was not SAA’s core business and the airline would have to be guided by its shareholders, the Department of State Enterprises, on the ownership and structure of the proposed biofuel production business.

“But potentially we could have a strategic stake in the biofuel producer to safeguard security of fuel supply.”

Cruickshank emphasised that SAA had made a commitment to use only “sustainable biofuels” rather than any first-generation biofuels.

These early biofuels, such as maize and palm-oil plantations, have generated controversy across the world because they often entail using scarce water and food-production land to grow a new form of petrol.

The race to produce large volumes of biofuels has also been linked to food-price hikes in some nations

“But when done properly, the new generation of fuels and supply chains will enable South Africa to diversify its energy sources, increase export opportunities, and do so in a manner that is environmentally and socially responsible.”

Cruickshank said the airline was investigating about nine feedstock sources, including forestry industry residue, municipal solid waste, municipal sludge waste, and mealie and wheat waste.

SAA said the final choice on feedstock type had not been taken, but the airline hoped to produce a more concrete road map by the end of March next year.

As most fuel demand for the SAA fleet was at OR Tambo Airport, it was possible that large volumes of biofuel from a central reservoir at this airport would also be available to other big airlines.

SAA could then claim carbon-emission-reduction credits from the sale of surplus biofuels to other airlines.

While the environmental group WWF-South Africa will be involved in monitoring the environmental sustainability of the proposal, the sheer scale of such a project is nevertheless bound to raise concerns.

The Boeing group was chosen as a partner because the aircraft company had a dedicated biofuels team that had been researching biofuel options for more than a decade. - The Mercury