The Biden administration on Thursday announced an interim goal to produce 3 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) per year by 2030 on the way to net-zero emissions by mid-century.
Commercial domestic and international flights in the U.S. are responsible for 11% of the country’s transportation-related emissions, according to the Biden administration fact sheet.
“Without increased action, aviation’s share of emissions is likely to increase as more people and goods fly. That is why leadership and innovation in this sector is so essential if we hope to put the aviation industry, and the economy, on track to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” the White House said.
Replacing existing jet fuel with SAF is expected to reduce U.S. aviation emissions by 20% in 2030.
Currently, aircraft can run on a blend of conventional jet fuel and up to 50% SAF, due to technological limitations. Blending limits and the lack of supply prevent airlines from substituting more SAF.
SAF production levels aren’t enough to satisfy even 1% of global jet fuel demand, according to the International Air Transport Association. The Biden administration says only 4.5 million gallons of SAF are produced domestically.
The short supply of SAF does not mean there’s a lack of useful biomass and feedstocks.
A Department of Energy report said the U.S. has the capacity to “sustainably” collect 1 billion dry tons of biomass each year, enough to produce 50 billion to 60 billion gallons of low-carbon biofuels such as SAF. Producing 3 billion gallons of SAF per year by 2030 could be achievable, based on the report.
SAF can be made from a variety of feedstocks, including corn grain, algae, agricultural residues, wood mill waste, municipal solid waste streams, oil seeds, forestry residues, other fats, oils and greases, and dedicated energy crops, according to the DOE.
SAF can reduce emissions up to 80% compared to fossil fuels, depending on the feedstocks used, according to life-cycle analysis by IATA.
“Contrary to the ground transport sector, which can use electric energy, aviation has no near-term alternative to liquid hydrocarbon fuels. … In the medium term, SAF will be the only energy solution to mitigate the emissions growth of the industry,” IATA said.
As the U.S. transitions to electric vehicles in coming years, SAF could provide an alternative purpose for feedstocks currently used for producing ethanol and other biofuels to power road vehicles.
The White House said SAF production could create good-paying union jobs and urged coordination among aircraft manufacturers, airlines, governments, airports and fuel producers.
The administration also proposed a SAF tax credit as part of the Build Back Better agenda. The credit would be applicable for SAFs with emissions at least 50% lower than conventional jet fuel.
A comprehensive climate action plan for the aviation industry is expected to be released by the administration in the coming months.