Delta is committed to “sustainable aviation fuel” in its quest for net zero.

Utah’s largest airline has set a goal of replacing fossil kerosene, but there’s not nearly enough of it yet.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Delta Air Lines planes at Salt Lake City International Airport, Friday, December 23, 2022. Delta plans to transition from petroleum-based jet fuel to “sustainable aviation fuel” made from plant-based materials.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Delta Air Lines, which has pledged to be net-zero by 2050, plans to fuel its jets with “sustainable aviation fuel” to reduce its carbon footprint.

Delta, the world’s third-largest airline by passenger volume and Utah’s largest airline, this week announced new efforts to operate more sustainably. Plans include reducing plastic and switching ground equipment to electric power, but the most important part of the push is committing to and investing in new fuels.

Sustainable aviation fuel or SAF is biofuel made from plant materials and not fossil fuels. Although combustion in jet engines still releases climate-damaging carbon dioxide, this release is offset by the carbon dioxide that is bound as plants grow.

SAF is two to three times more expensive than regular aviation fuel, so the airline currently only uses it at five airports that offer incentives for its use: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, Amsterdam and London, according to Delta spokesman Emily Pitchford .

Delta previously announced a partnership with DG Fuels to purchase 385 million gallons of SAF between 2027 and 2035.

“The SAF will likely use wood waste, corn stalks and cotton gin waste as feedstock and is expected to reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by 75% to 85% compared to conventional jet fuel,” according to the DG Fuels partnership announcement.

Delta uses 3.9 billion gallons of jet fuel annually, so DG Fuels’ commitment is literally a drop in the bucket.

“Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is the most promising lever known today to accelerate progress toward a net-zero future. It can use existing fuel infrastructure to get it to airports and is safe for use in current aircraft engines,” Delta said in a press release. “Unfortunately, today there is not enough SAF to fuel a Delta-sized airline for a single day.”

As a result, the airline plans to slowly increase its use of SAF as production capacity grows. Delta’s SAF targets are 10% by 2030; 35% to 3035; and 95%+ by 2050.

In 2021, the Biden administration added a tax credit to boost SAF production under the Build Back Better program, noting that 11% of non-military transportation emissions come from aviation.

“In the future, electric and hydrogen-powered aviation could enable affordable and convenient local and regional travel. But for today’s long-haul travel, we need bold partnerships to rapidly advance the deployment of billions of gallons of sustainable aviation fuels,” said a White House fact sheet on SAF incentives.

United Airlines has also been heavily committed to SAF and also recognizes that current production falls far short of what is needed. “United today has 40% of all announced fuel agreements for SAF globally, and last year we used less than 0.1% of our total fuel supply as SAF, so there just isn’t enough,” Lauren, United Airlines Chief Sustainability Officer Riley said US TODAY.

The main motivation for SAF is to reduce the release of carbon dioxide, the main contributor to human-caused climate change. But Wasatch Front air quality could also benefit, depending on how the SAF is worded, according to Glade Sowards, policy analyst for the Utah Division of Air Quality. About 3% of the frontline emissions are attributed to Salt Lake City International Airport.

Sowards pointed to a study conducted for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District that states, “SAF blends in particular can significantly reduce direct aircraft emissions of particulate matter (PM), sulfur oxides (SOx), and carbon monoxide (CO).”

However, the same study found that SAF does not reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and therefore is unlikely to reduce summer ozone problems in Utah.

If SAF becomes a significant source of fuel in Salt Lake City, it’s not clear how it will get there. Currently, refineries near the airport produce kerosene from crude oil and send it to the airport. Utah currently has no production of SAF and has no proposal to build any.

“While there is no way of knowing how existing refiners will respond to the increased demand for SAF, it is important to note that today SAF must be blended with conventional kerosene up to a maximum of 50%, so we anticipate that.” there will continue to be a need for local conventional production,” said Delta’s Pitchford.

Delta’s announcement this week also included a commitment to electrify all ground equipment at US airports, which Salt Lake City International said was “nearly 100% complete.”

The airline also committed to a 100% net-zero supply chain by 2050 and said it is “the first US airline to work with EcoVadis, a provider of corporate sustainability assessments, to increase the transparency of its supply chain processes and… Ensuring suppliers’ values ​​and ethics are consistent with those of Delta.”

Tim Fitzpatrick is a renewable energy reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains overall control of editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power. Delta is committed to “sustainable aviation fuel” in its quest for net zero.

Justin Scaccy

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