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SustainabilityEpisode 171

Sustainable aviation fuel: Ready for take-off?

Matthew Wilde
Jun 25, 2024

The United States is working to decarbonize its transportation industry and the aviation sector is increasingly turning to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to reduce emissions.

SAF, a renewable fuel that can be produced with a variety of feedstocks, provides at least a 50% reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum aviation fuel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). SAF accounted for roughly 0.1% of the 24 billion gallons of fuel used by major airlines in 2023, says Ron Bately, senior director of refined fuels operations, pricing and economics with CHS.

But SAF may be poised to take off, he says, and that could benefit agriculture.

“Biofuels are a wonderful way to reduce carbon,” Batey says. “Farmers predominantly provide the raw materials to support it.”

How is sustainable aviation fuel made?

SAF can be made from a wide range of biological and waste resources, according to the DOE. Those feedstocks include fats, oils, greases, grains, oilseeds, algae, forestry residues, municipal solid waste and more.

However, Batey says the feedstocks available that hold the most potential to scale up SAF production are vegetable oils, such as soybean oil and canola oil, and corn via ethanol.

Demand factors

Batey says he expects SAF use could hit 300 million gallons in the next couple of years. Federal and state government energy policies and tax incentives will drive growth, he says.

“There’s a series of incentives that stack up together to allow sustainable aviation fuel to be competitive with petroleum jet fuel. If it didn’t cost less or the same as traditional jet fuel, it would be very difficult for airlines to afford to use this low-carbon fuel,” Batey says.

Ag opportunities

As the SAF industry grows, so will opportunities for farmers, Batey says.

He anticipates the first wave of additional feedstock demand will be for vegetable oils, such as soybean and canola oil. Some renewable diesel plants could begin to make SAF.

The second wave of feedstock demand will occur when corn-based ethanol is used to make SAF, he says. “That is needed to scale up to billions of gallons of SAF production. When you reach that step, if possible, that’s when the farmer is really going to see the benefit of extra demand for their crops.”

“It’s highly likely owners of SAF facilities will ask local farmers to use climate-smart farming practices – no-till, cover crops and enhanced efficiency fertilizers – to reduce the carbon score of the feedstock so it qualifies for SAF,” he continues, “and SAF manufacturers will pay for that.”

Learn more about SAF and how widespread adoption could affect U.S. agriculture.

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