In potential boost for Iowa ethanol, Biden administration plans to power airplanes with sustainable fuel

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2021

In an effort to cut greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday the Biden administration wants to power the nation’s jets and other airplanes with sustainable aviation fuel made from crops like corn and biomass such as wood waste.

Vilsack, along with U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, announced the initiative in a White House roundtable discussion, setting a goal of producing 35 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel to meet “100% of U.S. aviation fuel demand by 2050.”

Renewable Fuels Association CEO Geoff Cooper, who participated in the roundtable, said the initiative creates “a major new market opportunity for ethanol producers.”

Iowa is the nation’s top maker of the renewable fuel, which consumes half of the state’s also nation-leading corn crop.

With ethanol makers adopting cleaner and more efficient production processes, he noted that ethanol’s carbon emissions are falling and that “the economics of ethanol-to-jet fuel processes continue to improve.”

The Biden administration said it would make $4.3 billion in new and ongoing funding available to support sustainable aviation fuel projects and producers. It’s also proposed a tax credit for aviation fuel that cuts greenhouse emissions in half, with additional incentives for greater reductions.

“We can expand our ability to power the nation’s aviation sector with fuel grown right here at home by hard-working Americans, while creating economic opportunity for American farmers, business owners and rural communities,” Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, said in a statement.

The initiative, combined with industry partnerships, will create “good-paying jobs, support American agriculture and manufacturing, and help us tackle the climate crisis,” said a White House fact sheet.

United, Delta and American — along with other airlines — have announced initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions as well as form partnerships with companies for sustainable aviation fuel.

United said Thursday that, along with aerospace conglomerate Honeywell, it would invest “multimillion dollars” in Washington, D.C.-based Alder Fuels to produce sustainable aviation fuel made from biomass that includes forest and crop waste.

More:Corn, ethanol groups ask federal appeals court to rehear arguments on allowing higher blend year-round

The Biden administration has set a goal of having 3 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel produced annually by 2030. Achieving the goal would reduce aviation emissions by 20%, according to the White House fact sheet.

The sustainable aviation fuel industry now produces 4.5 million gallons each year. Companies are using new technology to make the fuel from ethanol, wood waste, crop residue and fats, oils and greases, among other feedstocks.

The news comes as Iowa and U.S. farmers have questioned President Joe Biden’s commitment to renewable fuels, given his push to replace gas-powered cars and trucks with electric vehicles. Almost all gasoline sold in the country, by federal law, contains 10% ethanol.

“Focusing solely on cars and trucks doesn’t understand the enormous opportunity that exists in aviation and marine fuel,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack told the Des Moines Register that the initiative would roughly double the size of the nation’s existing biofuels market and help the ethanol and biodiesel industry find new uses for the renewable fuels.

More:EPA fines Iowa diesel repair company $75,000 for disabling equipment to reduce air pollution

Cooper, the Renewable Fuels Association CEO, said the ethanol industry “has a decadeslong proven track record for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, and we are confident that ethanol will play a central role in cleaning up aviation fuels as well.”

Cooper said the industry recently pledged that ethanol will produce 70% fewer greenhouse gases when compared to petroleum by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will provide continued research, development, demonstration, and deployment of technologies to support the sustainable aviation fuel initiative.

Without “increased action, aviation’s share of emissions is likely to increase as more people and goods fly,” the administration said.

Aviation represents 11% of U.S. transportation-related emissions. Overall, transportation contributes 29% of U.S. greenhouse gases that cause global warming, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It’s the largest contributor, followed closely by powerplants.

Biden has set a goal to cut in half greenhouse gas pollution by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

More:Company wants to build a carbon sequestration pipeline in 30 Iowa counties. Find out where.

In response to criticism that the administration has turned its back on renewable fuels, Vilsack said the administration already is making it easier for gas stations and convenience stores to upgrade ethanol and biodiesel pump so consumers can buy higher blends.  And the agriculture department is providing $100 million for biofuels infrastructure.

This week, U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, an Iowa Democrat, said she was able to get a $960 million allocation for biofuel infrastructure added to a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill.

Vilsack said biofuels will be around for years as the nation gradually shifts to electric cars and trucks and that new opportunities for its use will emerge as the nation moves away from fossil fuel products, which go into everything from plastics to cosmetics.

Vilsack pushed to the U.S. military’s air and marine divisions to use more biofuels when he served as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8457