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Minneapolis Saint Paul Partnership to Build SAF Hub

Delta Air Lines aims to power its jets with 10 percent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2030, with sights set on 50 percent by 2035.  It will take hundreds of millions of gallons of SAF a year to hit that target. Yet only 20 million gallons were produced in the U.S. in 2023, and that’s to go around for the country’s entire air travel industry.

Arlene Karidis

October 20, 2023

5 Min Read
Minneapolis Saint Paul Partnership to Build SAF Hub

Delta Air Lines aims to power its jets with 10 percent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2030, with sights set on 50 percent by 2035.  It will take hundreds of millions of gallons of SAF a year to hit that target. Yet only 20 million gallons were produced in the U.S. in 2023, and that’s to go around for the country’s entire air travel industry.

With its 2030 milestone looming, Delta approached a group in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership (GREATER MSP), with a proposition. It wanted to work with this private-public sector group to find a way to deliver huge volumes of affordable SAF to the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP). Now, plans are underway to build a large-scale SAF production operation.

This Midwest region seemed like an ideal location. It’s Delta’s second-largest U.S. hub. It’s home to a thriving biofuel production industry, which has resulted in existing pipelines and refinery access. It has a robust community of corporations and research institutions vested in renewable energy. The region is rich in agricultural inputs, which are among feedstocks going into SAF.

The GREATER MSP is a collaboration of businesses, universities, governments, and philanthropic organizations that strategize ways to grow the region’s economy and generate jobs. Part of that strategy focuses on the New Climate Economy, a Global Commission on the Economy and Climate project.

“The New Climate Economy is about working to solve national and global climate challenges while creating jobs and growing companies—in our case that would be in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul region. Advancing SAF is one way we are addressing climate while implementing our bigger, overarching strategy to grow the economy,” says Peter Frosch, CEO of GREATER MSP.

With a feasibility study completed showing the ambitious initiative is achievable, the goal is to deliver 250 million gallons of SAF to MSP by 2030.  A hopeful plan is to announce one or more SAF projects by late 2024.

“What we’ve done is build a working partnership with large companies, the state of Minnesota, and other entities to build an industrial scale value chain to decarbonize air travel, create jobs, and deliver product to the airport,” Frosch says.

“To achieve this scale requires commitment from many large entities to work together in new ways to do things that haven’t been done before.”

Anchor organizations at the table are Delta; MSP; Ecolab (specialized in clean energy management technologies); electrical and natural gas company Xcel Energy; and Bank of America—all with shared strategic interests in decarbonization. Yet each has differentiated roles and core competencies whether in refining and processing clean fuels, investing to accelerate sustainable technologies, or other.

“We are doing hard work together to achieve scale, to push the price down, and to aggressively push down the carbon intensity,” Frosch says.

“It’s not easy. It’s a great challenge to apply all of what we’ve learned the past decade about building innovative collaboration to achieve a common good.  And that’s what we are after. We are working for a very big win that delivers strategic value to each participating entity,” Frosch says.

To qualify as SAF, the product must cut carbon emissions by 50 percent from jet fuel, but the Minnesota group aims to shave emissions by 80 percent in time. Research shows that these fuels, coupled with direct air capture of carbon during production, can already potentially achieve emissions reductions beyond 80 percent.

SAF produced in Minneapolis Saint Paul will likely come from multiple sources, though eyes are on ultra-low carbon inputs such as green hydrogen and crops, with the latter of interest, especially. Leveraging regenerative agriculture to produce SAF would supplement local farmers’ incomes and enable them to reduce nutrient loss and improve soil health.

One of the nation’s oldest and largest airlines, Delta consumes approximately 4 billion gallons of jet fuel a year to support its global network of more than 4,000 daily flights.

“We are using as much SAF as we can get our hands on. Unfortunately, the supply is far below what the industry needs. In fact, there isn’t enough SAF to power the world’s commercial airlines for even a single day. That's why Delta is focused on driving demand signals through SAF purchase commitments and developing coalitions while encouraging policies to rapidly scale,” a Delta spokesperson told Waste360.

The air travel giant has to date made long-term commitments to purchase more than 200 million gallons of SAF through partnerships with Gevo, DG Fuels, Aemetis, Northwest Advanced Bio-Fuels, Shell, and Neste.

Delta’s role within Greater MSP is to highlight and confirm market demand for SAF as well as to consult on the infrastructure and logistics needed to move it to the region’s airport.

Supporting partner Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) has pledged to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent from buildings and operations by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050, while pursuing “Level 3” certification in the Airports Carbon Accreditation Program, incentivizing its stakes in the SAF hub.

“It is amazing to see companies, government, and institutions banding together to reduce the carbon impact of the airline industry, while understanding air travel demand is projected to grow in the coming decades,” says Emmy Waldhart, MAC’s sustainability manager.

There will be an essential research component, as the hub partners are chartering new territory that will involve a lot of problem solving.

Questions remain unanswered over issues that are not fully understood. Working with the University of Minnesota and other research partners, GREATER MSP will explore regenerative agriculture’s potential role in advancing SAF. There’s work to be done to ensure identified crops will be viable feedstocks at scale.

Frosch says, “We are engaging in this collaborative initiative with humility and confidence. Humility because it hasn’t been done at scale. But confidence because we have a team that has the know-how, resources, and track record to solve hard global challenges.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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