Biofuels Key to Lifting Up Sustainable Aviation

As the U.S. ethanol industry prepares to apply its production capabilities to sustainable aviation fuels, Growth Energy is working hard to ensure that farm-based biofuels are positioned to lead the charge to decarbonize commercial air travel.
By Emily Skor | October 11, 2021

As the White House and leaders in Congress take aim at the climate footprint of the aviation sector through sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), Growth Energy is working hard to ensure that farm-based biofuels are positioned to lead this charge on aviation fuel decarbonization. Farm-based feedstocks—including ethanol and corn oil—are the only source of renewable energy available in large enough volumes to meet the demand for SAF. However, SAF production is not currently available at commercially viable levels, but could be with good policy and the right innovation. The game-changing solutions the White House seeks cannot happen unless we have a healthy and thriving corn ethanol industry to make the long-term investments needed to turn SAF production into reality.

SAF is no substitute for the motor fuel market, but biofuels must have a seat at the table or the nation risks missing a huge opportunity for the future growth of SAF. Indeed, with the appropriate investments and policy environment, our industry will continue to play an important role in decarbonizing the entire transportation sector, from passenger vehicles to the aircraft fleet. In addition to a strong Renewable Fuel Standard, new SAF tax incentives must be guided by technology-neutral life-cycle assessments (LCA) on the carbon intensity of biofuels examined by scientists who understand the U.S. biofuel sector and the U.S. agriculture sector.

Over the last few months, Growth Energy and other biofuel champions have pushed Congress and the administration to ensure that burgeoning SAF policies accurately reflect LCA models that incorporate the most up-to-date science and research. In a letter to Congress this summer, we wrote, “As climate-smart agriculture practices continue to improve and expand, and as new fuel production technologies for SAF are developed and scaled to market, a regularly-updated LCA is essential to the success of a SAF tax credit and its ability to incentivize new fuels and reduce emissions.”

For the U.S. market, that science has been led by researchers at the Department of Energy (DoE), with real-world expertise examining both the domestic agricultural supply chain and the latest hard data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). DoE’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Technologies (GREET) model is the gold standard for LCA, harnessing the latest data on everything from indirect land use change to fertilizer inputs. GREET should be the basis for determining any U.S. incentive payments based on the greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions in aviation fuel.

Of course, these clearly positive scientific and technological developments haven’t stopped our critics from pushing misinformation about biofuels and undercutting U.S. climate goals. In response, we’re working hard to ensure that the facts remain front and center for regulators and policymakers alike. Thanks to continuous innovation by American farmers and biofuel producers, we’re lowering the carbon intensity of ethanol year after year, and USDA data show that we are producing more corn while using less acreage.

In fact, ethanol reduces lifecycle emissions from motor fuel by an average of 46 percent, as demonstrated most recently in groundbreaking research led by David MacIntosh, chief science officer of Environmental Health & Engineering Inc. and adjunct associate professor of environmental health at Harvard. 

Growth Energy represents the full diversity of the industry, and with that, the most innovative and climate-forward biofuel producers. Today, the U.S. biofuel sector is ready to put that expertise to work expanding SAF production, reducing carbon emissions, meeting climate goals, and creating jobs for U.S. workers along the way.

Author: Emily Skor
CEO, Growth Energy
202.545.4000
eskor@growthenergy.org