United Airlines has partnered with Tallgrass and Green Plains in a combined $50 million venture aimed at bringing enough sustainable aviation fuel to the airline to power more than 50,000 flights per year.
The new joint venture, dubbed Blue Blade Energy, will see United Airlines, energy infrastructure company Tallgrass, and leading biorefining company Green Plains produce up to 135 million gallons of ethanol-based sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) annually, and up to 2.7 billion gallons in total.
The group says that will be enough fuel to make 50,000 flights between Chicago and Denver every year, a distance of about 1,000 miles each way.
United has been leading the shift toward SAF, launching the first SAF-powered flight in the U.S. in late 2021, going from Chicago to Washington D.C. It will assist with the project’s SAF development and aid in the fuel certifications and logistics.
SAF can reduce jet fuel emissions by up to 85 percent compared to kerosene and other conventional fuel sources. The tech for the new ethanol-based SAF was developed by researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Library — a leader in sustainable energy.
“The production and use of SAF is the most effective and scalable tool the airline industry has to reduce carbon emissions and United continues to lead the way,” United Airlines Ventures President Michael Leskinen said in a statement. “This new joint venture includes two expert collaborators that have the experience to construct and operate large-scale infrastructure, as well as the feedstock supply necessary for success. Once operational, Blue Blade Energy has the potential to create United’s largest source of SAF providing up to 135 million gallons of fuel annually.”
Blue Blade Energy says if its tech proves successful, it will build a pilot facility next year, followed by a full-scale production facility that could commence commercial operations as soon as 2028.
As part of the joint venture, Tallgrass will manage the tech’s research and development, including the pilot plant’s development and construction.
“At Tallgrass, we are striving to innovate how we deliver the energy that powers our nation and enables our quality of life,” said Alison Nelson, Vice President, Business Development at Tallgrass. “Air travel uniquely connects people and improves lives, and the advancement of this novel SAF technology presents a meaningful opportunity to reduce emissions from aviation. We are excited to partner with industry leaders United Airlines and Green Plains on this initiative.”
Green Plains is supplying the low-carbon ethanol feedstock as well as bringing its industry expertise to the operations.
“Our transformation to a true decarbonized biorefinery model has positioned Green Plains to help our customers and partners reduce the carbon intensity of their products by producing low-carbon proteins, oils, sugars and now decarbonized ethanol to be used in SAF,” said Todd Becker, President and CEO of Green Plains. “This partnership with world-class organizations like United Airlines and Tallgrass, shows the value creation that is possible with our low-carbon platform. The potential impact of this project is a gamechanger for U.S. agriculture, aligning a strong farm economy and a robust aviation transport industry focused on decarbonizing our skies.”
Current aviation regulations only allow for up to 50 percent SAF per flight. But industry experts are hopeful that will increase to full tanks powered by sustainable fuel. The aviation industry produces about 2 percent of global emissions, but the nature of air travel brings greater challenges in reducing its footprint.
A number of airlines already have offset programs in place, but according to recent findings, that’s not enough to prevent surpassing the Paris Agreement 1.5°C temperature rise threshold. A Stanford study published earlier this month says we’re likely to push past that within the next 15 years, even despite efforts to curb emissions.
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