Delta embraces “sustainable aviation fuel” in its net-zero pursuit

Utah’s largest air carrier aims to replace fossil-based jet fuel, but there isn’t nearly enough at this point.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Delta Air Lines planes at Salt Lake City International Airport, on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. Delta is planning to switch from petroleum-based jet fuel to "sustainable aviation fuel" made from plant materials.

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

The world’s third largest airline in passenger volume and Utah’s largest carrier, Delta this week announced new efforts to operate more sustainably. The plans include reducing plastics and converting ground equipment to electric power, but the most significant part of the push is committing to and investing in new fuels.

Sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, is biofuel produced from plant materials rather than fossil fuels. It still releases climate-harming carbon dioxide when it’s burned in jet engines, but that release is offset by the carbon dioxide that is captured when the plants are growing.

SAF is two to three times more expensive than regular jet fuel, so right now the airline is only using it at five airports where there are incentives offered to use it: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, Amsterdam and London, according to Emily Pitchford, spokesperson for Delta.

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

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

Delta uses 3.9 billion gallons of jet fuel annually, so the DG Fuels commitment is a literal 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 the existing fuel infrastructure to get it to airports and is safe to use in current aircraft engines,” Delta said in a news release. “Unfortunately, there isn’t enough SAF today to fuel an airline Delta’s size for a single day.”

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

In 2021, the Biden Administration included a tax credit to spur SAF production as part of the Build Back Better program, noting that 11% of non-military transportation emissions come from aviation.

“In the future, electric and hydrogen-powered aviation may unlock affordable and convenient local and regional travel. But for today’s long-distance travel, we need bold partnerships to spur the deployment of billions of gallons of sustainable aviation fuels quickly,” according to a White House fact sheet on SAF incentives.

United Airlines has also made a large commitment to SAF, and it also acknowledges that current production falls far short of what is needed. “United has, today, 40% of all of the announced fuel agreements for SAF globally, and last year we consumed less than 0.1% of our total fuel supply as SAF, so there’s just not enough,” United Airlines’ chief sustainability officer Lauren Riley told USA TODAY.

The main motivation for SAF is reducing the release of carbon dioxide, the principal contributor to human-caused climate change. But there could also be a benefit to the Wasatch Front’s air quality, depending on how the SAF is formulated, according to Glade Sowards, policy analyst for the Utah Division of Air Quality. About 3% of the Front’s emissions are attributable to Salt Lake City International Airport.

Sowards referenced a study done for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District that said, “Specifically, SAF blends can significantly reduce direct aircraft emissions of fine particulate matter (PM), sulfur oxides (SOx) and carbon monoxide (CO).”

But the same study noted that SAF doesn’t reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and therefore it likely won’t reduce Utah’s summer ozone problems.

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

“While there is no way to know how existing refineries will respond to increased demand for SAF, it’s important to note that today, SAF must be blended with conventional jet fuel up to a maximum of 50%, so we expect there to 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 U.S. airports, which it said is “nearly 100% complete” at Salt Lake City International.

The airline also committed to a 100% net-zero supply chain by 2050, and it said it is “the first U.S. airline to partner with EcoVadis, a provider of business sustainability ratings, to increase the transparency of its supply chain processes and ensure suppliers’ values and ethics are aligned with Delta’s.”

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.