The transportation sector is now the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States, contributing to poor air quality and the climate crisis, and disproportionately impacting underserved and disadvantaged communities. To address this, our goal is to eliminate nearly all GHG emissions from the sector by 2050 while working to achieve a fair and just transportation system that will support economic growth and benefit all citizens.
In December 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) joined forces with the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development by signing and MOU to coordinate on transportation decarbonization. The first deliverable from that partnership was the January 2023 release of The U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, a roadmap for how we can address these issues to provide better transportation and fuel options as well as zero-emission vehicles.
Light-duty vehicles (passenger cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and motorcycles) are responsible for about half of all U.S. transportation GHG emissions. Medium- and heavy-duty vehicles (larger delivery trucks, work vans, and buses) are the second-largest contributor to transportation GHG emissions with 21 percent of all emissions. Aviation is the third largest contributor at 11 percent, including fuel used for all domestic flights and international flights departing the United States
Biofuel – derived from biomass or organic wastes – plays an important role in decarbonizing transportation. The Federal Aviation Administration projects continued growth for the aviation sector and as more EVs enter the market, aviation will become a larger portion of the transportation sector’s GHG emissions.
Biofuels Support Decarbonization
To reduce aviation GHG emissions, the aviation sector is scaling up sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) use. SAF is a “drop-in” liquid hydrocarbon jet fuel produced from renewable or waste resources that is compatible with existing aircraft engines – a critical near-term solution to reduce GHGs. This led to the creation of the SAF Grand Challenge.
Together, DOE, DOT, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed a roadmap to accelerate SAF research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D) to meet the ambitious government-wide commitment to accelerate production of SAF to 3 billion gallons per year by 2030 – ultimately meeting 100 percent of U.S. aviation fuel needs with SAF by 2050.
Scaleup Collapses the Timeline
DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) supports RDD&D of technologies that convert domestic renewable carbon resources into biofuels and bioproducts. This effort is already decreasing the price of drop-in biofuels for airplanes, big rigs, and passenger vehicles. To meet the ambitious SAF Grand Challenge goals, BETO has accelerated efforts to scale up these technologies. Scale-up is essential for reducing risks associated with deploying novel technologies at large scale, as is expected in a biorefinery. In doing this, technologies move from the laboratory into relevant and realistic environments.
Public–private partnerships are critical for ensuring that scaleup matches industry needs. For example, BETO is already funding projects with industry partners to turn industrial waste gases into jet fuel, convert biomass into refinery-ready biocrude, reduce GHG emissions from first-generation ethanol plants, and more. These large-scale pilot and demonstration projects enable researchers to test prototype components or subsystems in relevant operating environments. That way, researchers can identify further R&D needs for BETO’s subprograms. Large-scale projects also create larger volumes of target products, supporting quality control testing to verify existing infrastructure compatibility and potential end user specifications. They also provide data that analysts use to evaluate economic and sustainability performance.
Funding Spurs Innovation
BETO saw its first opportunity to fund SAF-focused research in 2021, awarding $64 million to 11 scaleup and demonstration projects. In early 2023, BETO awarded an additional $118 million to 17 projects with industry partners. In recognizing the need for strong designs prior to breaking ground on expensive construction, BETO requires projects to meet necessary criteria to advance from phase 1 into phase 2, which funds construction and operations.
By allocating funding across multiple years and different scales, BETO expects to collapse the time it takes to see success at the demonstration scale. Projects that meet criteria and are ready to go don’t have to wait years for additional opportunities.
As the demand for plane, train, and automobile transportation continues to increase, it is critical that we come together to find innovative solutions to the climate crisis. Biofuels can be a win-win solution, allowing our economy and way of life to thrive while lowering our carbon footprint on a national – and global – level.
Valerie Sarisky-Reed is Director of the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office