Capturing SAF Promise in Rural America

Ethanol-to-SAF Plant Grand Opening Lauded as Beginning of New Era in Ag

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was on hand Wednesday in Soperton, Georgia, for the grand opening of a plant that will produce sustainable aviation fuel using ethanol. (DTN screenshot)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- On a day that saw LanzaJet launch what is believed to be the world's first ethanol-to-jet fuel production plant in Soperton, Georgia, officials with the corn and ethanol industries in Iowa were sounding alarm bells.

Their message: Unless the Iowa ethanol industry can overcome hurdles to launch full-scale carbon capture at plants across the state, the economic promise of a budding sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry may pass agriculture by the roadside.

Dignitaries from across the world gathered Wednesday in Soperton to celebrate the launching of SAF production at a 10-million-gallon plant.

It is the first in what the airline, agriculture and ethanol industries hope will be a long line of SAF production plants dotting the countryside in the coming decades.

The promise of SAF in rural America is unmistakable: Meeting a goal of producing 35 billion gallons by 2050 would demand a new feedstock market of billions of bushels of corn from Midwest farmers.

The technology used at the LanzaJet plant is expected to produce SAF that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 70% compared to fossil-based jet fuel, using ethanol produced using a variety of feedstocks including energy crops, municipal solid waste, agricultural waste and captured carbon from other industry processes.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was on hand for the grand opening.

He said the Soperton plant was just the beginning of a new era for American farmers.

"This is personal to me," Vasick said.

"I started out my professional career as a lawyer in a small town in Iowa. I represented farmers during the 1980s when we went through a crisis in the farming communities. I've done a study of how many farms have been lost since 1981. Since 1981, the U.S. has 437,300 farms no longer in the farming business. At the same time, we've lost 41 million acres of land in farming. What happens when you lose farms isn't a tragedy to individual farm families, it is a tragedy to the communities that lost those farms. This industry provides a ray of hope to reverse that trend."

Unless corn-ethanol producers can reduce their carbon intensity scores enough to make their fuel more attractive to SAF producers, however, large-scale ethanol-to-SAF production likely will not happen.

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said during a press conference Wednesday that the only feasible way for Iowa ethanol producers and others across the country to lower carbon scores is through the wide adoption of carbon capture technologies.

Standing in the way in recent months is public opposition to various carbon pipeline projects.

At the end of October 2023, Navigator CO2 Ventures canceled plans to build a $3.5 billion carbon pipeline. The company said in a public statement that it pulled the plug because of the "unpredictable nature of the regulator and government processes involved," particularly in South Dakota and Iowa.

"If we don't do anything, we're going to have excess corn," Shaw told reporters.

"We're really looking at a fork in the road. We're very lucky. Sometimes there's not new demand standing out there. We have to take our low-carbon ethanol and make it real low-carbon ethanol."

IOWA CORN STUDY

Iowa Corn announced the results of a study by Decision Innovation Solutions on how an SAF industry would help farmers and rural communities.

The study said there are no corn-ethanol plants that would qualify for SAF production in Iowa. SAF has to be 50% less carbon intensive than fossil-based jet fuel to qualify as SAF.

By contrast, the study said Brazil produces over seven billion gallons of ethanol expected to qualify for SAF production.

On existing acres, it is estimated that there will be five billion bushels of corn without a home in Iowa alone in the next 20 years. The study estimates that 11 new 200-million-gallon ethanol plants would be built in the state to produce SAF.

In addition, the study said five new ethanol-to-jet SAF production facilities would be built along with three new plants that convert soybean oil, fats and greases to SAF.

"The construction and ongoing operations of these facilities hold the promise to fundamentally transform rural Iowa in ways even bigger than the current biofuels industry," said David Miller, DIS chief economist and author of the study.

"We have the opportunity to set the stage for the next 25 years when corn production will rise to 20 billion to 21 billion bushels per year based on current acres. No other market but SAF can utilize that corn. If we do not embrace low-carbon ethanol to unlock SAF, we are likely to lose 20 million acres of corn across the Midwest and the $10 billion in farm income those acres create. What will our legacy be?"

BEGINNING OF CORN DOWNTURN

Shaw said the SAF opportunity comes at a time when corn stocks are on the rise and prices are on the decline.

There are other ways for ethanol plants to improve their carbon scores, Shaw said, but right now carbon capture is far more cost-effective and reduces more carbon emissions.

Ethanol plants can reduce energy inputs and provide power to plants using wind energy or solar, he said. A combination of heat and power is something that most ethanol plants are looking to install.

"If you invest and it's very expensive -- it's almost the cost of building your plant -- and you get 10 points on your carbon score on average," Shaw said.

"If you do carbon capture and sequestration, which costs a lot, lot less for the plant -- obviously someone's building a pipeline to make that work -- but for the plant, it's not that expensive and you get a 30-point reduction (carbon score). So basically, if you don't do CCS, you almost have to do everything else, and you still may not get there depending on your facility and it would be infinitely more expensive."

Ryan Sauer, vice president of market development at Iowa Corn, said SAF is a "transformative opportunity" for corn farmers.

"In 30 years, corn yield has improved 77 bushels per acre," Sauer said during a press call.

"Today corn production is outpacing demand four-to-one and there's a 2.2-billion-bushel carryout after this crop year. Bottom line is we need more demand for corn. We have most of everything we need today to make this happen. The missing piece is to reduce the carbon footprint of corn ethanol."

Read more on DTN:

"Buis: Carbon Capture Ag's Big Moment," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com.

Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @DTNeeley.

Todd Neeley

Todd Neeley
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