Soy powered planes? Minnesota hopes to be a hub for sustainable aviation fuels

Delta Air Lines planes are seen on the tarmac
Delta Air Lines planes are seen on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Yuki Iwamura | AFP via Getty Images file

An initiative announced Tuesday would accelerate the use of low-carbon aviation fuels by creating a sustainable aviation fuels hub in Minnesota.

The goal is to scale up production of low-carbon aviation fuel from ethanol, soy oil or hydrogen.

Partners in the initiative include the Greater MSP Partnership, Xcel Energy, Delta Airlines, Bank of America and Ecolab.

Greater MSP Partnership CEO Peter Frosch called it a first-of-its-kind initiative.  

“Which is to build an industrial scale value chain that connects the farm to the airplane, where major companies, the state of Minnesota and other key partners are coming together to deliver a large volume of affordable, low-carbon SAF (sustainable aviation fuel),” he said.

Adoption of low-carbon fuels by airlines has been limited by cost, but Xcel Energy executive vice president Brett Carter said increased production is the only way to make the renewable fuel more affordable.

Carter said Minnesota is a good place to develop a sustainable aviation fuel industry.

“On the front end, it may look like it's going to be a very expensive proposition, but there's so much infrastructure here in Minnesota that we can take advantage of that we believe can bring the cost down over a fairly short period of time,” said Carter.

Minnesota lawmakers passed a tax incentive for sustainable aviation fuel production, and there are also federal tax breaks in place.

A maze of pipes at the Highwater Ethanol plant
A maze of pipes at the Highwater Ethanol plant in rural Lamberton, Minn.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently touted the state efforts to make Minnesota more attractive to SAF. The governor said the state has the largest tax credit in the nation for sustainable aviation fuel production. The state also added construction tax incentives for three years as an incentive to build new production facilities in the state.

A Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge announced by the Biden administration seeks to increase the production of sustainable aviation fuels to at least three billion gallons per year by 2030.

The Minnesota initiative plans to bring in commercial scale volumes of sustainable aviation fuel from other states to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by 2025.

Delta airlines, a partner in the initiative, uses about 250 million gallons of aviation fuel annually in Minnesota. The company said it intends to replace more than 10 percent of petroleum-based fuel with low carbon fuel by 2027 and expand to 50 percent sustainable fuels by 2035. 

“The Minnesota SAF Hub is the game changer aviation needs to start producing SAF at the volumes required to meet our aggressive goals,” said Delta CEO, Ed Bastian.

In-state production of low-carbon aviation fuels will be the next step in the initiative.

Those fuels could be produced using ethanol, soy oil or green hydrogen produced by renewable energy.

The plan also calls for reducing the carbon footprint of aviation fuels by expanding regenerative agriculture practices that will store carbon in the soil.