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How sustainable is SAA's Project Solaris?

South African Airways (SAA) currently imports 100% of its fossil-based jet fuel. That said, the national carrier is currently on a mission to become the most sustainable airline in the world by 2022.

A large part in attaining this target will involve reducing its carbon footprint currently sitting at 3.3 x 10^6 tonnes/y, roughly 96% of which is related directly to fuel burn.

Project Solaris, an aviation biofuel venture run by Sunchem SA and SkyNRG, and supported by SAA and Boeing, officially launched in December 2014. This February, farmers in Limpopo started harvesting their first crop of the nicotine-free, energy-rich Solaris tobacco plant.

How sustainable is SAA's Project Solaris?

The biofuel industry worldwide has, however, faced all kinds of criticism for its potentially adverse impacts on biodiversity, misuse of scarce land resources, and then there's the food vs fuel dilemma.

Bizcommunity recently chatted to Ian Cruickshank, Head of Group Environmental Affairs of South African Airways, to find out how Project Solaris fairs on the sustainability front.

BizcommunityBy how much will the production and use of biofuel reduce SAA's current carbon footprint?

Ian Cruickshank: We're looking to reduce our carbon footprint by at least 40% bearing mind that we have to, at this stage, blend biofuels in a 50-50 ratio [with fossil fuels]. We do expect that to change in the future in about seven to eight years and then our carbon reduction opportunities will be a lot bigger.

BizcommunityHow energy and water efficient is the current production of biofuel from Solaris?

IC: What we're doing is conducting trials on Solaris - we have some irrigated crops and we have some crops that we harvest on a two-crop cycle, and we have some that are on a three-crop cycle harvest. The two-crop cycle is a lot more energy and water efficient than the three-crop cycle. We're busy trying to optimise the sustainability criteria, which are going to be best for the environment while still giving us the best bang for our buck. We're also conducting dry-end trials where we don't irrigate at all and that's going very well. Of course, that's as sustainable as you can get.

BizcommunityCould you take us through the manufacturing process and the steps taken to ensure that it is sustainably run?

IC: SAA is partnered with the on Sustainable Biomaterial Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterial (RSB) and we've applied for direct membership, so that sort of ensures that our crop is completely sustainable, and not only from an environmental point of view; the RSB has a great social angle as well, and because they're a partner, they have access to every single stage of production.

How we produce the crop is that we actually grow the energy tobacco - we press it in a local hydraulic or mechanical press for now, until we can get enough scale to do a chemical process. Then we extract the oil and the seedcake. The seedcake goes for animal feed, the oil goes to be refined into a jet fuel, and that jet fuel is then used in aircraft in a 50-50 blend with fossil fuels.

BizcommunityWhat is the proportion of small farms involved in the Solaris Project?

IC: We don't have a fixed proportion at the moment - the smallholder element is incredibly important though. We know that, going forward, we're going to have to start the smallholder element, and it's going to have to increase and increase in size and scope. One of the requirements for producing biofuels from the government includes minimum criteria for smallholders, so we've taken note of that and we plan to certainly exceed the government targets in terms of including smallholders in widespread regional beneficiation.

BizcommunityWhat is the current land use of the area to be used to produce Solaris?

IC: What we've done for the initial stages, we're looking for many thousands of hectares, is we're targeting land that previously used to be tobacco, and so there are no land use change issues. Tobacco production in South Africa has gone from well over 30,000ha to down to 3000 to 5000ha, so there's a huge amount of land that used to be used for tobacco that has all the infrastructure in place - it's got all the growing knowledge, it's got people waiting to actually farm on it and produce an income, so we're very fortunate in that respect that we can scale up to about 30,000 to 35,000 hectares without having to worry about any impact in terms of land use change or indirect land use change.

BizcommunityWill there be any effects on the biodiversity in the area?

IC: No, because we're not planning to use any genetically modified tobacco strains, there'll be no GMO, and also we're not planting tobacco where there are any forests or anything like that. We're planning to just use land that used to be used to farm tobacco, that's potential land fallow or is currently being used to grow subsistence crops.

BizcommunityDoes SAA have any plans on investing in R&D in other forms of biofuel?

IC: We have three main biofuel projects; the first one is the tobacco one; the other two we can't really speak about because they're at an early and sensitive stage, but they do involve a lot of research and development with our partners, which would be Boeing primarily. We are hoping to bring both streams online, hopefully this year, so we can start widespread test farming, and one of the other processes is a chemical process, which is also sustainable. So there are definitely other technologies and processes that we're looking at - the tobacco is just way out in front at this stage.

BizcommunityWhat effect will the use of biofuel have on SAA flight prices?

IC: At this stage we're hoping to produce biofuel at parity to fossil fuels, so it shouldn't have any effect on the prices of flights. What it will do in the longer term future is if SAA is using a biofuel, we won't be necessarily constrained by a lot of carbon taxes, by a lot of greenhouse gas global schemes, so there may be an opportunity in the future, in the long-term future, to actually reduce prices if we're using a biofuel, and obviously the effect is that we'll be a completely clean, green airline, which is, for a passenger's conscience, quite something.

SAA is part of the IATA Environmental Assessment (IEnvA) programme, a voluntary evaluation system designed independently to assess and improve the environmental management of an airline. SAA is currently one of only two airlines in the world to have qualified for stage two of the IEnvA programme.

For more info on Project Solaris, go to
For more info on SAA's environmental policy, go to
For more info on the IEnVA programme, go to

About Sindy Peters

Sindy Peters (@sindy_hullaba_lou) is a group editor at on the Construction & Engineering, Energy & Mining, and Property portals. She can be reached at moc.ytinummoczib@ydnis.

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