The Need for Lower Carbon Jet Fuel
Aviation accounts for approximately 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. With the demand for air travel projected to increase exponentially in the coming decades, there is great opportunity to innovate in order to meet demand while reducing carbon emissions. One emerging solution is sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The federal and state governments are spearheading efforts to support research and development of SAF through recent policies like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and Minnesota’s recent energy and environment omnibus bill, empowering energy companies and aviation stakeholders to embrace this low-carbon fuel alternative.
The Production Process
SAF is derived from renewable biomass and waste resources. The World Economic Forum describes the general process through which SAF is made:
- Collection: the biomass is collected and goes through a process called conversion, where it is heated or chemically treated to break it down into smaller molecules.
- Refining: Next, it is refined, which means the smaller molecules obtained from conversion are used to create a liquid fuel. This step helps remove impurities and enhances the fuel quality.
- Blending: Typically, the fuel is blended with regular jet fuel. Blending ensures that the SAF is compatible with existing aircraft. Modifying jet engines to handle 100% SAF is a possibility.
- Certification: Finally, SAF must undergo a rigorous certification process to ensure it meets the necessary quality standards and safety requirements for aviation. Once certified, it can be distributed to airports.
SAF offers a promising pathway to achieve the performance of petroleum-based jet fuel while significantly reducing its carbon footprint. The United States Department of Energy reports that SAF can dramatically lower life cycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional jet fuel. In fact, some emerging SAF pathways even have a net-negative carbon footprint, contributing to the overall reduction of emissions from the aviation sector while creating new opportunities for businesses. Minnesota boasts an abundant supply of feedstocks for SAF. These include corn, soybeans, agricultural and forestry residues, oil seeds and municipal solid waste.
New Markets Across Industries
SAF production from woody biomass could create a new market for forest products in Minnesota, as discussed by the Bioeconomy Coalition of Minnesota, while also helping manage forests for fire hazard reduction and carbon sequestration. Wood waste created by damage from insects such as emerald ash borer (EAB) can be used for SAF. EAB, an invasive insect that is deadly to trees, is projected to generate 500,000 pounds of wood waste annually at its peak, according to a five-year projection by the Partnership on Waste and Energy. The availability of materials poses a great opportunity for businesses looking to get into the SAF market.
Growing trees like hybrid poplar specifically for biomass production is also a promising option in Minnesota. These trees are very efficient at producing cellulose, another useful material that could be sold for use in other products. Unlike other crops like corn, hybrid poplar can be harvested with machines, which is a more cost effective alternative.
The United States is already the largest producer of biofuels globally, and Minnesota is the seventh largest producer of biofuels in the United States (EIA). Expanding SAF production in Minnesota not only sustains the advantages of the biofuels industry but also generates new economic opportunities and employment across various sectors. Jobs are created in feedstock production, construction of biorefineries, manufacturing and the aviation industry itself, according to the Department of Energy.
SAF at Minneapolis-St Paul Airport
Companies are already working across sectors to support the growth of SAF. For example, Delta Air Lines is partnering with Gevo, a Colorado-based company, to purchase 75 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel annually from Gevo’s plant in Luverne, Minnesota. This seven-year deal, starting in 2026, aims to significantly reduce Delta’s carbon emissions and support its goal of using ten percent sustainable fuel (400 million gallons) by 2030. By utilizing locally grown crops and producing fuel on-site, the Delta-Gevo collaboration minimizes both cost and environmental impact.
As the largest carrier serving Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), Delta’s efforts align with the Metropolitan Airports Commission’s goal of achieving an 80% reduction in emissions at MSP by 2030. Delta used about 1 million gallons of SAF in 2022 and aims to increase its use of SAF to 400 million gallons per year by 2030, about 10% of its pre-pandemic level of four billion gallons of jet fuel per year.
This goal creates a great opportunity for Minnesota companies since Delta accounts for about 70% of passenger traffic in and out of MSP. Demand for SAF at MSP will increase in the coming years due to cleaner fuel initiatives by Delta and other airlines.
Policies Uplifting SAF
In addition to company initiatives, recent state and federal policies are encouraging the development of SAF. The IRA is expected to spur SAF production because it includes a tax credit for SAF. The SAF credit is $1.25 per gallon for fuels that have a reduction of at least 50% in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. There is also a Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge headed by the Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture and Department of Transportation that seeks to develop a comprehensive strategy for scaling up new technologies to produce SAF on a commercial scale. The goal of the challenge is to achieve a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional fuel and to supply enough SAF to meet 100% of aviation fuel demand by 2050. The challenge aims to accelerate research, development and deployment efforts to scale up SAF production to 35 billion gallons per year by 2050, with a milestone goal of 3 billion gallons per year by 2030.
State level policy in Minnesota provides further support to SAF innovators. To incentivize the industry’s development, the Minnesota Legislature approved an $11.6 million tax credit that effectively doubles the federal tax breaks for sustainable aviation fuels.
Barriers to Expansion
SAF is an exciting development, but there will be challenges to overcome as production expands. One challenge is the limited production of SAF. The total amount of SAF produced in the U.S. in 2022 was 15.8 million gallons, compared to the 17.5 billion gallons of jet fuel used by major airlines. At present, SAF is considerably more expensive to produce than traditional jet fuel, making it economically challenging to produce and expensive for airlines to purchase. Permitting challenges also play a role, as Minnesota’s permitting system for transitioning from ethanol production to alternative jet fuels can be lengthy and complex.
Some groups are also concerned that growing the amount of feedstocks necessary to scale up SAF production will actually harm the environment. They argue that the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the production of feedstocks for SAF will outweigh the reduction in aviation emissions by SAF.
Despite these challenges, there is growing interest in the SAF industry in Minnesota. The state’s existing biofuels industry, agricultural resources and research capabilities make it a great candidate for SAF production. The recently approved tax credits and government support aim to incentivize the growth of the industry, but ongoing efforts are required to address the challenges and ensure the successful development of the SAF sector in Minnesota. With ongoing efforts, Minnesota can foster the successful growth of the SAF industry and contribute to a cleaner aviation future.