What's inside Biden's new SAF Grand Challenge Roadmap?

As part of the US’s climate goals, the Biden Administration has published a new plan focusing on the role of sustainable aviation fuel in the future of US aviation. Kirstie Pickering explores the key takeaways from the roadmap.

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Aviation is a huge source of income and employment in the US. The sector drives around 6% of the US gross domestic product and just under 7% of national employment.

This presence also means it is a significant contributor to carbon production. Aviation generates approximately 2% of US human-made CO2 emissions and in 2019, jet fuel use in the US reached 23 billion gallons.

In light of this, the SAF Grand Challenge Roadmap is a 128-page document created by the US Government that explores the potential of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in the US’s vast aviation industry. Its key goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the sector by supporting the creation of an environment where feedstock producers adopt best practices. 

If fulfilled, this achievement will reduce emissions and create regional collaboration to maximise the economic and social benefits of developing SAF. This could lead fuel producers to opt to produce and sell SAF to the industry.

“The roadmap lays out a plan of action in the six areas where the administration expects the government and industry stakeholders to collaborate, but legislative action will likely be necessary to implement these goals,” says Justin deBettencourt, a lawyer at global law firm Reed Smith’s Transportation Industry Group.

“As a result, stakeholders in the aviation industry should closely monitor further legislative action, as well as the administration’s policies, in this area. Such actions and policies will be key to the administration delivering on the implementation of this roadmap.”

What’s in the SAF Grand Challenge Roadmap?

Innovation in feedstock 

According to the roadmap, increasing the supply of sustainable lipid feedstocks to support SAF production is vital. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is set to work with farmers to develop and improve the supply of sustainable oilseed by expanding R&D. They will also support pilot trials for emerging oilseed cover crops. 

It is hoped that feedstock supply systems will interface with existing and emerging conversion technologies to help meet the US’s 2030 SAF production goal of 3 billion gallons per year, as well as enabling the scale-up of the production and use of SAF to 35 billion gallons per year by 2050 to meet 100% of domestic aviation fuel demand. 

Conversion technology  

Conversion technologies and processes involve the steps required to convert feedstocks into a fuel that meets the required specifications to be aviation fuel. A range of technologies and pathways will be needed as no single process will be capable of realising the 2050 goal of 35 billion gallons. 

The key action areas in this field include making improvements to the fermentation fuel industry to reduce the carbon intensity of the existing starch ethanol industry and increasing its production capacity without the need to plant more corn.

Developing biointermediates – feedstocks that have been partially converted at one facility but are then sent to a separate facility for their final processing into a renewable fuel – and creating innovative unit operations and pathways to broaden the availability of SAF are also key goals.

Building supply chains  

SAF supply chains include the feedstock production, collection and distribution to SAF production facilities; the conversion of feedstock to fuel; and the transportation of finished fuel to fuelling stations. 

The US Government plans to support SAF production expansion through supply chains in many ways, such as ensuring R&D transitions from pilot to larger-scale go smoothly, validating supply chain logistics, and enabling public-private partnerships. 

The roadmap acknowledges that setting up complex SAF supply chains will involve engagement and contribution from a diverse group of stakeholders, so discussion and incentives will be key. Stakeholder coalitions are vital to developing regional solutions for building a renewable fuels industry that improves environmental and economic performance, in addition to job creation and social equity. 

Policy and valuation analysis       

The report notes that reliable data and in-depth analysis are key to developing policies that maximise the social, economic and environmental value of SAF. Although there are several existing policies that support SAF development, new policies will be needed. 

This action area promises to develop the data, tools and analysis that will be used by decision makers to develop such policies. A lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions working group will be created and will define the methodology for establishing lifecycle emissions reductions under the SAF Grand Challenge.                     

End-use impact  

Addressing the barriers and requirements for safe and cost-effective use of SAF via standards development, R&D and analysis has been flagged as another important action area. 

Workstreams include SAF evaluation, testing, qualification and specification; enabling the use of drop-in unblended SAF and SAF blends up to 100% and integrating SAF into fuel distribution infrastructure. 

Communicating progress and building support

To build the trust and support of the public for SAF, effective communication that demonstrates the environmental, climate, and economic benefits has been deemed imperative. The US Government has pledged to engage with stakeholder organisations, monitor and measure progress against the SAF Grand Challenge goals, provide public information resources, and communicate the benefits of the SAF Grand Challenge in the quest to achieve such support.

What does this mean?

The goals detailed in the roadmap spell out the action that needs to take place for the US to reach its 2030 and 2050 SAF goals. Industry experts believe it is a step in the right direction, but there is much work and collaboration needed to make it a success.

“To reach the goals set by the Grand Challenge, the roadmap acknowledges that close collaboration of US Government agencies, such as the US Departments of Energy and Transportation, is required,” says Oliver Beiersdorf, a lawyer at global law firm Reed Smith’s Transportation Industry Group.

Beiersdorf adds that the roadmap will require actions outside of its scope, such as legislative actions that invest in the R&D of SAF and those that create a policy environment where producers and end users choose to produce and use SAF.

He highlights that although the roadmap informs policy options, it states that it does not suggest policy preferences.

The SAF Grand Challenge is the most extensive policy and market-based mechanism for SAF development globally.

Sarah Wilkin, founder and CEO of sustainable travel consultancy Fly Green Alliance, adds: “The SAF Grand Challenge is the most extensive policy and market-based mechanism for SAF development globally. Naming important facets of the scale-up, including building and supporting stakeholder coalitions through outreach, extension, and education, was vitally important.

“With the US being a single market and able to federally manage tax cuts, move quickly and stimulate the market, we see this as a leading example and a way to test and learn on a large scale. The industry welcomes the SAF Grand Challenge and will follow its approach eagerly."