US ethanol sector pins hopes on dominating SAF feedstocks

The future of the US ethanol sector lies in sustainable aviation fuel, with a string of industry voices laying out expectations that the sector’s future growth and expansion will increasingly be entwined with efforts to decarbonize aviation during the National Ethanol Conference in San Diego

“We are creating a new industry and now is the time,” Lee Blank of Summit Carbon Solutions told delegates at the National Ethanol Conference in San Diego during a panel discussion, with any expansion into the potentially huge aviation fuel sector likely to spell significant changes for everything from corn to ethanol and to DDGS.

“The sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) market really is going to drive this area over the next few decades and we have to be aggressive if we’re going to get it,” he continued, echoing a range of presenters that laid out the opportunities – and challenges – that the sector faces.

While typical campaigns, including the year-round rollout of a 15% ethanol blend known as E15 and potential expansion into the marine fuels space, were still evident during the conference – the discussion was dominated by SAF.

Expansion to 3 billion gallons by 2030, 36 billion gallons by 2050

Jimmy Samartzis, the CEO of SAF producer start-up LanzaJet, told delegates that current SAF output in 2023 reached 13 million gallons – amounting to 0.06% of total demand.

The target would require expansion to 3 billion gallons by 2030, potentially followed by a ten-fold increase to 36 billion gallons over the twenty years following.

Samartzis – who leads a company that just started up its Freedom Pines SAF facility earlier this year – argued that only ethanol carried the sort of promise that would be required to make that expansion feasible.

Corn-based ethanol offered versatility and flexibility and almost unlimited feedstocks at a cost-effective price.

Moreover, while electrification will continue to penetrate the car fleet, “aviation has no other option,” Samartzis said, with only limited scope for technological advances to lower emissions.

That means up to 65% of emissions reductions will have to come from the fuel – a figure echoed by Marykate O’Brien, senior sustainable fuels consultant at Southwest Airlines.

Airlines could address some emissions by switching all airside ground transportation to electric vehicles or alternate powertrains, or upgrading aircraft and engines to more fuel-efficient models, but the bulk of emissions reductions would have to be achieved through the fuel.

Over 50% of Southwest’s emissions reductions are going to need to come from the fuel and the use of increased renewable fuels, but incentivizing investment would be critical, and ensuring a route to compliance for the fuels remained another consideration.

“We need science-backed life cycle assessments so we can get fair accounting,” O’Brien told the conference, adding that SAF was the only tool in the current arsenal that could “start having an impact right away.”

Following on from LanzaJet, fellow SAF producer start-up Gevo built on the views, showing a forecast that showed US SAF fulfillment could reach close to 25 billion gallons per year, with ethanol-to-jet technology supplying up to 20 billion gallons of fuel by 2050.

Moreover, the cost of production of ethanol-based SAF would likely land at the upper end of fossil jet fuel production – putting it roughly on par.

However, against alternative SAF processes, alcohol-to-jet approaches would land substantially under rival vegetable oil, used cooking oil or animal fat-based HEFA production, and far below the expected cost of power-to-liquid efuels such as hydrogen, according to Gevo’s Dr. Paul Bloom.

The initiatives were fully endorsed by the government, with the current Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, lending his views to the adoption of corn in delivering huge SAF mandates, while also using it to shore up the wider US farming sector.

Noting that, since 1980, 165 million acres of worked farmland has been lost, Vilsack argued that expansion into SAF could represent a “new opportunity for rural America,” during his speech to the conference.

Efforts to produce 36 billion gallons of SAF by 2050 would be a “tremendous opportunity for America to define the economy of the 21st century,” he said, although he offered no thoughts on one of the major obstacles complicating ethanol adoption – a lack of compliance pathways.

Obstacles in using corn as a feedstock for SAF

While the SAF sector promises to be a major opportunity and outlet for ethanol, there remain thorny challenges ahead, with the conference kicked off by a call to arms from the Renewable Fuels Association’s president and CEO, Geoff Cooper.

Under both of the main GHG emissions models that define the eligibility of a feedstock for critical tax credits, US corn only qualifies under the US-defined GREET model – and only then when carbon capture and storage (CCS) is factored in as well.

Under the rival CORSIA compliance scheme, corn-based ethanol does not qualify as a feedstock for aviation, falling well short of the minimum required savings once calculations of indirect land use change are factored in.

Cooper argued that the science behind CORSIA’s assumptions was flawed and called for a review, while panels during the conference discussed other ways to lower the carbon footprint of corn through the use of less emissions-intensive farming practices or fertilizers.

Currently, despite the goodwill and best-laid plans, US corn as a feedstock to SAF production looks to be an unattractive option and is likely to slow investment in production capacity unless the pathway for corn is improved.

That effect could be doubled by the European Union’s prevailing policy of banning crop-based feedstocks in future biofuel feedstocks, although that legislation is being challenged in court by European ethanol producers.

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