See more of the story

Delta Air Lines and Xcel Energy have launched an effort to bring a sustainable aviation fuel manufacturing hub to Minnesota.

Delta and other U.S. airlines have pledged to greatly boost their use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in the coming years. As a result, the market is expected to grow, and Delta and partners like Greater MSP want to see that growth happen here.

"Minnesota is committed to building an SAF economy," said Peter Frosch, CEO of Greater MSP, an economic development group with about 300 members, including corporations, cities and nonprofits.

The linchpin to any viable project — an SAF manufacturer willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars — has yet to be found. Frosch said there are "active conversations" with producers of sustainable aviation fuel.

"What makes this more than a wish is market pressure," he said. "There is a race to produce SAF, and at scale."

Atlanta-based Delta, Minneapolis-based Xcel and St. Paul-based Ecolab have all signed on to the effort, as has Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America. Frosch said several other "entities" are involved, but don't wish to be named publicly yet.

As the Twin Cities' dominant airline, Delta's involvement may be critical to landing an SAF hub in Minnesota.

"If you were to drop a pin on the map of any community in the world, I think this is the ideal community in the world for this project," said Peter Carter, Delta's executive vice president of external affairs.

Commercial aircraft account for about 2 % of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and the industry is tough to decarbonize. Batteries would be impractical — at least with today's technology — to power jets on long-haul flights.

In the short run, Delta's goal is to replace 10% of conventional jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by the end of 2030. The airline wants to meet that goal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport even sooner, by 2027.

Delta uses 4 billion gallons of fuel a year. All the sustainable aviation fuel produced worldwide last year might fuel Delta for one single day of operations, Carter said.

Indeed, even though the amount of SAF consumed by major U.S. airlines tripled from 2020 through 2022, it still accounted for less than 0.1 % of total fuel, according to a recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The high price of SAF has inhibited more production; it can cost two to eight times more than conventional jet fuel, the report said.

The Biden administration's 2022 renewable energy legislation — dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act — provided tax credits for SAF along with a trove of subsidies for renewable energy generally.

The Minnesota Legislature this year approved two tax credits for sustainable aviation fuel, which will make the state more competitive, Frosch said.

Corn made into ethanol is one source for sustainable aviation fuel. Ethanol is mandated by the federal government for use in auto fuel.

"With the growing adoption of electric vehicles, we're going to see in the future less demand for traditional ethanol products," Carter said. "The ethanol that's now devoted to the automobile industry is a perfect feedstock for sustainable aviation fuel, and there's a pretty robust ethanol industry in this state."

Colorado-based Gevo, which has a plant in Luverne, Minn., processes corn into isobutanol for use in jet fuel. Gevo is building an $800 million plant in South Dakota, which is expected to supply Delta with some SAF starting in 2026. But the airline will need much more.

Food waste like cooking oil is a prime ingredient in a different process to create aviation fuel. Unlike ethanol, edible food isn't used for fuel in this process. But the supply of used grease and other waste is tight.

A third production method for SAF — called power to liquid — is in its infancy. The idea: use clean electricity to create hydrogen, which would in turn be used to help create synthetic crude oil or methanol and ultimately jet fuel.

"Xcel is already on a march to create green hydrogen," said Brett C. Carter, Xcel's chief customer officer.

The company plans on investing $2.5 billion in green hydrogen projects over the next decade throughout its eight-state territory. Xcel has already unveiled some hydrogen projects for its largest markets — Minnesota and Colorado — though they are still a long way from reality.

"The public utility will be at the center of any clean energy transition across all industries," Xcel's Carter said.