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United Airlines, Boeing, and more investing $100 million into startups to make aviation sustainable

A plane ascends upward against a pink and peach sky, with lots of smoke on the left half
Photo credit: Unsplash / Eric Masur

On February 21, United Airlines launched the United Airlines Ventures Sustainable Flight Fund which according to the aviation giant is a first-of-its-kind investment vehicle for startups focused on decarbonizing air travel by accelerating the research, production, and technologies associated with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

This is United Airlines’ latest investment in SAF and the company is pulling all the stops. Last month, they launched a joint venture with infrastructure company Tallgrass and biorefining company Green Plains to develop SAFs using ethanol, a renewable feedstock made from corn and plants. The venture is called Blue Blade Energy and cost the three companies $50 million together.

But United’s latest effort cost double that amount. Along with five other corporate partners, Air Canada, Boeing, GE Aerospace, JPMorgan Chase, and Honeywell, the syndicate invested $100 million, leaving the (plane) door open for other corporate partners, as well as everyday consumers who care about the planet to contribute.

United’s heavy investments in SAF didn’t start in 2023. According to the company, it has invested in over 3 billion gallons of SAF, more than any airline in the world. In the last two years alone, the airline invested in startups like Cemvita, Dimensional Energy, and NEXT Renewable Fuels, each aiming to make flight green.

United isn’t the only airline company banking on SAFs to get them through the great greening of heavy-emitting industries. Along with investing in United’s venture fund, American aircraft company Boeing doubled their SAF purchases this year, totaling to 5.6 million gallons for 2023. For context, the Boeing 747 plane, a behemoth commercial plane, uses about a gallon of fuel every second, so over the course of a ten-hour flight from L.A. to London, the flight would cost 36,000 gallons.

With an average of nearly 40 million flights a year (minus the major dip the pandemic caused), the 5.6 million gallons, while vast, only account for a sliver of Boeing’s flights.

According to the oil refining and marketing company Neste, over the course of its lifecycle, SAFs are estimated to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% compared to fossil jet fuel. Neste is producing millions of tons of the world’s first-ever used 100% SAF and delivering them to commercial airline partners.

Aviation accounts for about 2% of global emissions, and depending on who you ask SAFs may play a big role in getting aviation to net zero. However, as the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports, while heavy investment is needed to stimulate the SAF market, alternatives to jet kerosene like battery electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft will be critical to decarbonizing aviation. In 2021, SAF usage was less than 0.1% of all aviation fuels, and by 2030, it has to be 10% to align with any net-zero scenario. There is a rush to see who will be the producer of that drastic uptick in SAFs. With its new alliance with tech developer, Swedish Biofuels, a multibillion-dollar engineering company KBR, is aiming to produce SAFs to meet the 2030 emissions targets and beyond.

However, Neste seems to be emerging as the SAF giant. As Boeing doubles its SAF usage, Neste is their supplier, as well as the world’s largest SAF producer. According to Sheila Remes, the company's vice president of environmental sustainability, Neste’s SAFs were able to supply 25% of the planemaker’s total jet fuel needs last year. “We aim to increase that portion in the years to come,” she added in a statement.

In 2021, Boeing committed to making all of its planes capable and certified to fly on 100% SAFs, and over the next 20-30 years, the aircraft maker believes it has the greatest potential for aviation decarbonization.

Neste’s SAF blend uses a mix of cooking oils and animal fat waste, but United Airlines’ new venture fund will fund startups bringing new recipes into the mix. For example, already in United’s portfolio are startups making SAFs out of forestry and crop waste and municipal waste, as well as startups incorporating early-stage technologies like synthetic biology and CO2 utilization.

In the press release, United credits the Inflation Reduction Act with providing tax credits for SAFs, clean energy, and carbon capture, further incentivizing airlines to make changes. United Airline’s heavy investments in SAFS underscore the company’s goal to be “100% green” by 2050, reducing its GHG emissions by 100%.

The company is taking the IEA’s advice, and not putting all of its investments into SAFS, and is also investing in carbon capture, hydrogen-electric engines, electric regional aircraft and air taxis to finish the flight to net zero.

“Solving climate change is doable but it requires hard work and real leadership,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in a statement. “This fund is unique. It's not about offsets or things that are just greenwashing. Instead, we're creating a system that drives investment to build a new industry around sustainable aviation fuel, essentially from scratch. That's the only way we can actually decarbonize aviation.”

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