“Ethanol — Illinois has energy to burn” reads a bumper sticker state commodity groups circulated decades ago to increase visibility around the low-carbon fuel.
Were they to reissue it today, the sticker would likely read: “SAF — Illinois has the fuel to fly.”
One of the nation’s top producers of corn and beans and longtime leader in the ethanol industry is now poised to also serve as a chief contributor to developing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
Lawmakers representing Illinois are all-in on policy and financial incentives to scale SAF; major U.S. airlines based here have committed to consuming the fuel; and industry players in the state are investing heavily in ways to manufacture and scale the technology.
And farmers from across Illinois — they’re an essential part of a goal to produce 35 billion gallons a year by 2050 — say there’s no doubt they have both the production tools to meet increased demand for feedstocks to make SAF and the conservation practices to lower the carbon intensity of the fuel.
“We’ll fulfill any goal that’s thrown down by producing the bushels needed,” said Jared Gregg, a seventh-generation grain farmer from east-central Illinois. “The American farmer is the best producer in the world, the most efficient producer in the world of any commodity that’s tasked to the Corn Belt.”
“It’s not a question of if we’ll rise to the SAF demand that’s been thrown down to us, it’s just a question if all the infrastructure and all the other pieces the industry believes it needs are in place and done correctly,” Gregg recently told FarmWeek from the cab of his combine.
In addition to the supply of grain feedstocks that can be converted into the fuel, what’s also at the intersection of the SAF equation are a slew of tax credits, models to accurately quantify lifecycle emissions from the fuel and technologies like carbon capture and sequestration.
SAF carries other high-stakes: expanding market opportunities for Illinois-grown grain that were first created by the U.S. ethanol industry, sustaining renewable fuels’ economic impact on rural communities and rewarding farmers for the practices they implement around soil health.
“You’re talking about next-level economic growth,” Brian Duncan, an Ogle County grain and livestock farmer who serves as Illinois Farm Bureau vice president, said during a biofuels panel discussion at the Farm Progress Show this summer.
“We have the infrastructure for a liquid fuels world, and if we can provide, as agriculture, a liquid fuel with a potentially lower carbon intensity score than (electric vehicle and battery technology), then all of a sudden we are in a very good place,” Duncan explained.
“The impact to the price of corn, the price of soybeans is not going to be measured in my mind in pennies … I think it’s dollars and it’s real to our members.”
More bushels for SAF, higher prices for grain
While analysts and biofuel stakeholders don’t have a “magic number” on the total number of bushels of corn and soybeans that would be needed to supply future feedstock demand for SAF, there may be a rough idea based on existing figures for other biofuels.
The U.S. currently consumes about 5 billion bushels of corn (around 430 million bushels per month) each year for ethanol production, according to data from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Another 3.6 billion bushels of soybeans go to renewable diesel and biodiesel production annually.
Shifting demand dynamics for liquid fuels used in surface transportation due to the push for electric vehicles will leave a portion of those corn and bean bushels in need of a different use source.
But considering that it takes about 8 pounds of soybean feedstock to make one gallon of renewable diesel, then making one gallon of SAF will need at least 9 to 10 pounds of soybean oil feedstock under the hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) SAF pathway, according to Scott Irwin, a University of Illinois professor who specializes in biofuels markets and policy.
“Because of the higher temperatures and higher pressures, it basically takes more feedstock to make SAF,” Irwin said, noting the soybean oil-to-SAF conversion process is “basically twice the process as renewable diesel” because SAF is “essentially twice-refined renewable diesel.”
The process is also more expensive, Irwin said, explaining SAF made from the HEFA pathway is the only process to be fully demonstrated on a commercial scale, while the ethanol-to-jet pathway is still largely unproven.
“At this point, I would argue we don’t know enough to throw out any numbers,” Irwin said.
“It is very clear that potentially, a quarter or half of the jet fuel market is more than enough, if it was all to be supplied by ethanol, that you’d have to build more ethanol plants (and use more bushels),” Irwin said. “But a huge unknown is whether the ethanol industry will be successful in getting carbon intensity scores that allow it to qualify as an advanced biofuel (under SAF tax credit requirements.)”
When SAF will eventually require additional bushels, Duncan said having “that many demand levers to pull, you should see higher prices” for grain in the same way that river export terminals or existing ethanol plants impact local prices.
“You’re talking about just an improvement in basis of $40 an acre for corn,” Duncan said. “I mean, that’s real. That’s significant. That impacts peoples’ lives.”
David Isermann, who farms near Streator and serves as LaSalle County Farm Bureau president as well as chair of the IFB Resolutions Natural Resources Subcommittee, agrees.
Production shifts around SAF that boost local demand for grain have the potential to “change tremendously” the pricing and basis levels in areas where a SAF facility is located, Isermann said.
“The closer you are to a plant that’s operating, it’s going to draw from that area. It’s going to pull a tremendous amount of corn and possibly soybeans from that area,” Isermann explained. “So that’s going to change the dynamics of what gets put on a barge, what gets put onto rail.”
Gregg echoed that thought, noting SAF’s impact to grain prices would be “huge.”
“Anytime that there’s more competition and more steadily needed demand for grain, the basis just gets that much better,” Gregg explained.
Farmer views vital for future SAF frameworks
Gregg, Isermann and Duncan explored those price and demand possibilities related to SAF first-hand during a recent tour of the Marquis Industrial Complex in Putnam County, where a future 120-million-gallon-per-year SAF facility is set to be operational as early as 2027.
The three farmers were on site with other IFB farmer members and leaders as members of IFB’s Carbon Team. The team, which grew from a farmer-led environmental advisory committee formed in 2016, is made up of farmers, IFB directors and county farm bureau presidents and managers from across the state who manage a range of row crop, specialty crop and livestock operations.
Together, the team researches topics “that our members will find important and beneficial” and meets directly with representatives from federal and state agencies as well as academics and industrial actors, said Gregg, who chairs the team.
Information gathered in those meetings can then be shared with other IFB members and leaders to better inform the IFB grassroots policymaking process, Gregg added.
“These agencies, institutions, universities all seek our opinion because nobody knows our individual farms or areas better than us,” Gregg said. “We see it all firsthand. We’ve got a pretty good idea of what will work in our area and what won’t work in our area. What will work on our farm, what won’t work on our farm.”
Those farmer perspectives and ideas around SAF were especially valued in meetings at the MIC and during a set of meetings — including one with United Airlines representatives about SAF investments — earlier this summer as part of IFB’s Sustainable Ag Exchange.
Gregg and Isermann both agreed that continuing to maintain relationships between farmers, as producers of feedstocks for SAF, and industry players, as consumers of SAF, will be crucial as the technology evolves and incentive frameworks are established.
Policy supporting SAF development and recognizing farmer contributions will also be important, Isermann said, noting how the market opportunity could be lost to global competitors.
“If we don’t do something, and the United States decides, OK, we’re not going to (invest in SAF), then we’re going to give that (market) to other countries,” Isermann said. He pointed to the South American market influence in California, where Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane meets the low-carbon intensity requirement set by policies in that state.
Gregg said he also sees a sense of urgency around SAF, both in terms of maintaining demand for U.S. grain and sustaining the ethanol industry, but also in further incentivizing farmers to expand their conservation efforts.
“Hopefully, this SAF is another launch point for us to have reason to keep increasing yields, keep increasing nutrient efficiency in our crops to better supply greater amounts of grain, using less inputs and nutrients,” Gregg said.
“I think it’ll end up making the industry better. We always want to try to produce more efficiently and more effectively,” Gregg continued. “And I think this is just another challenge that’s being thrown down. We’re not immune to challenges.”