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Biden administration unveils roadmap to clean up emissions from air travel

Highlights

Plan supports 2030, 2050 SAF production goals

Output of 60 billion gal/year of advanced biofuels seen possible

Aviation industry shows support for new roadmap

The departments of Energy, Transportation and Agriculture along with the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Aviation Administration Sept. 23 laid out a whole-of-government "flight plan" with coordinated policies and activities agencies will undertake to support the Biden administration's Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge.

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That initiative aims to boost SAF production to at least 3 billion gallons/year by 2030 and wean the sector off petroleum-based jet fuel completely by producing 35 billion gallons/year of SAF by 2050.

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, with 11% of those emissions coming from non-military flights within and departing from the US.

The new roadmap provides a comprehensive plan for meeting the 2030 and 2050 production targets and climate goals in a manner that builds on the aviation sector's emissions reduction actions centered around new aircraft technology, operational improvements, offsetting and SAF.

Government officials, working with academics, NGOs and the aviation, agricultural and energy industries, identified six action areas that the roadmap is centered around: feedstock innovation; conversion technology innovation; building supply chains; policy and valuation analysis; enabling end use; and communicating progress and building support.

Those action areas include workstreams with topics to be addressed by public-private implementation teams that will be formed during fiscal year 2023. Those teams will then work to "assist in developing and refining lists of goals, activities, and timelines commensurate with expected progress on action areas and workstream efforts, as well as identification of new needs," according to the SAF Grand Challenge Roadmap.

Different pathways

The aviation sector cannot turn to electrification to slash emissions as it requires higher energy densities to make it through long flights without frequent stops for refueling. The DOE has identified biofuels as a sustainable, strong alternative for this hard-to-decarbonize sector.

The department also found that about 1 billion dry tons of biomass can be sustainably grown or collected each year, and estimated that such a volume could be converted into as much as 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels without impacting agriculture, trade or current uses of biomass. It added that SAF could become a market for existing biofuels as electrification lessens its market share in the automobile space.

S&P Global Commodity Insights assessed US West Coast SAF with credits at $7.36367/gal on Sept. 22, and without credits at $2.9274/gal.

Tax credits for SAF in the Inflation Reduction Act are expected to help lower the cost of SAF which trades at a premium to renewable diesel. The administration hopes the new law will spur a more aggressive shift in the fuel supply chain towards a low-carbon future.

Meeting the near-term goals "requires an immediate focus on commercially ready conversion technologies and feedstocks," the roadmap said, and pointed to lipid-based pathways, such as fats, oils and greases, as the likely primary fuel pathway leading up to 2030.

But current incentives in the IRA and elsewhere may not be enough to achieve the rapid scaling necessary to meet the administration's 2030 goals, agencies acknowledged in the document. So the SAF roadmap also directs action on policy analysis and tools to inform new policy implementation.

Actions to support the 2050 goals must occur simultaneously with the 2030-focused activities but require a greater focus on alcohol, waste-based, lignocellulosic and captured carbon gas pathways, according to the roadmap. Those actions will include "research, development and demonstration of new feedstock and conversion technologies with potential for exponential growth in production capacity, greater emissions reductions and reductions in cost of production and carbon intensity after 2030."

Industry on board

"From field to flight, this data-driven technology strategy will help guide America's scientists and industry to chart our course to clean skies," Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. "Not only is [SAF] critical to decarbonizing the airline industry and reaching our climate goals, but this plan will help American companies corner the market on a valuable emerging industry."

Airlines for America threw its support behind the new roadmap, with CEO Nicholas Calio saying it helps make the goal of reaching 3 billion gallons in less than eight years a reality.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian also welcomed the roadmap as his company strives to replace 10% of its jet fuel with SAF by the end of 2030. That, he said, "will require continued work alongside our suppliers and policymakers so that SAF can become as economical and widely available as traditional jet fuel."

Southwest Airlines also intends to replace 10% of its jet fuel consumption with SAF by 2030, and CEO Bob Jordan said the roadmap would help enable that goal as well as support "efforts to partner with organizations and government entities to help our industry reach carbon neutrality by 2050."