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United Airlines took its sustainability crusade to Washington, D.C., this week. The carrier demoed the ability of used cooking oil to power a jet on a flight to the nation's capital with the aim of getting the feds to pick up some of the estimated $250 billion needed to kick start sustainable fuels.

United Airlines is ramping up its public push for federal sustainable aviation fuel subsidies in its move towards net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century. On Wednesday, it flew a Boeing 737 Max filled with staff and officials on a blend of 50 percent sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, to Washington, D.C., in a show of what’s possible with the carbon-cutting fuels.

“This moment is a milestone,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in a hangar at Washington Reagan National airport after the flight. It was a milestone in that regulators lined up to allow the flight with passengers onboard, and the carrier was able to source 500 gallons of the fuels, he said.

The latter — the supply of SAF — is arguably the biggest challenge facing the widespread adoption of sustainable fuels. Despite years of research, offtake agreements and even equity investments, the airline industry is only slightly closer to widespread use of low-emission fuels than it was when Virgin Atlantic flew the first biofuel blend-powered flight in 2008.

Trade group the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that 26 million gallons of SAF will be produced globally in 2021. But that represents just a tiny fraction-of-a-percent of the airline industry’s fuel use in 2019, which neared 100 billion gallons.

In the U.S., industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A) has committed to working towards making 3 billion gallons of SAF available to airlines by 2030. This includes individual commitments from American Airlines to source 10 million gallons of the fuels by 2025, and Delta Air Lines use SAFs for 10 percent of its fuel consumption by the end of the decade. U.S. airlines used 18.3 billion gallons of fuel in 2019, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.

United’s own experience with SAF shows some of the difficulties faced. In 2015, the airline invested $30 million in Fulcrum BioEnergy in exchange for a supply of at least 90 million gallons of sustainable biofuel made from municipal waste products beginning in 2017. Fulcrum just completed its first production plant near Reno in July — four years after it was due to begin supplying United. Airline executives have previously blamed the delay on low fuel prices in the mid-2010s. The airline did begin using a SAF blend supplied by World Energy on select flights in 2016 but the supply — which stood at 1 million gallons in 2018 — remains a small fraction of its overall fuel use.

Scaling sustainable fuels has proved the challenging part. In addition to funding and building the needed production facilities, there is no consensus over what is the preferred source material — or feedstock — for the fuels. Some, like Fulcrum, are using municipal waste, others are looking at biomass, and United’s demonstration flight on Wednesday used SAF made from cooking oil and greases. Most believe that the sector will need to use multiple feedstocks in order to scale up to meet the vast needs of the airline industry.

“The first part is the hardest part,” said Kirby. “But once you’ve started to scale it up, then it’s just a matter of doing it over and over again.”

And that first step to meet the industry’s 2030 goals requires a big lift. United estimates that roughly $250 billion in investment is needed for sustainable fuels to meet 10 percent of airline industry consumption in just nine years. They and other industry players, including A4A and IATA, argue that government involvement is critical to jumpstart the SAF market — hence United’s demonstration flight to Washington.

At least two Congressional representatives, including Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) and Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), were onboard the 1 hour and 24 minute flight from Chicago that was labeled “experimental” by the Federal Aviation Administration for its use of 50 percent sustainable fuels. According to United, one engine on the twin-engine jet was fueled entirely with SAF, while the other used solely fossil fuels. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) attended the event on the ground in Washington.

Brown, Brownley and Schneider all back the proposed Sustainable Skies Act. The legislation aims to cut U.S. aviation emissions by at least half by giving producers — or blenders — a tax credit of at least $1.50 per gallon for fuels that cut carbon emissions by at least half through 2031. The bill was introduced in the House in May and the Senate in June, but has yet to receive even a committee hearing in either chamber.

However, President Biden’s pending $2.2 trillion Build Back Better bill includes some aspects of the Sustainable Skies Act. The legislation, which has passed the House but awaiting Senate approval, includes tax credits of at least $1.25 per gallon for aviation fuels that meet the 50 percent emissions reduction threshold through 2026, and known as the blender’s tax credit. The bill also includes $300 million for SAF research and development.

“There’s two great templates for this,” said GE Aviation President and CEO John Slattery on how government can help jumpstart sustainable fuels. “Renewable power, whether it’s wind or solar, where it was 10 years ago to where it is today — that’s the template. The demand is there, you can bring the cost down if you can bring the supply up.”

GE is a major aircraft engine manufacturer, including the ones that powered the 737 Max on its SAF demonstration flight. The company is developing engines that can run on up to 100 percent sustainable fuels.

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Tags: climate change, sustainability, united airlines

Photo credit: United Airlines flew a Boeing 737 Max to Washington, D.C., on a 50% blend of sustainable aviation fuel. Edward Russell / Skift

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