Boeing, Alaska Airlines Lead Push for Renewable Aviation Fuel From the Northwest

Xconomy Seattle — 

To borrow a phrase from folks in Texas, the biofuel industry has been “all hat, and no cattle” for quite some time. But that could be changing, as a group of 40 power players in the Northwest, led by Boeing, has coalesced to create what could be the first strategic plan to turn the region into a hotspot for alternative aviation fuels.

This initiative, called Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest, has been picking up momentum behind the scenes in recent months. Boeing, Alaska Airlines, the Port of Seattle, and Washington State University are among the key organizations that have been working closely now for a couple years on a comprehensive plan to see what assets the state has—and what it lacks—at every step of the value chain, from laboratory to refinery to pipelines to consumers. The group is being facilitated by Climate Solutions, and has attracted the interest of U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, and U.S. Representatives Adam Smith and Jay Inslee.

The working group’s final report and recommendations—expected to be the first regional plan of its kind in the country—will released in a couple of weeks, says John Gardner, the vice president of external affairs at WSU, and a key player in the behind-the-scenes effort.

“The science is close, the politics is close, the investment community is close,” says Gardner, who will present the plan in more detail at Xconomy’s upcoming alternative fuels event in Seattle on May 19.

Biofuels first really started to hit the public radar in about 2004 and 2005, as gas prices surged and the Iraq War was all over the news. And while quite a few entrepreneurs flooded in to the field and talked a good talk, in 2011 the average consumer really only sees a few “green” publicity stunts on the evening news while pulling up to pump $4 a gallon fuel from mostly imported petrochemical sources.

I’m sure there are people in the Northwest initiative who would like to see biofuels take over much of the multi-trillion dollar global market for liquid transportation fuels, but the logistics and money are head-spinning. What’s interesting is that the Northwest initiative doesn’t attempt to disrupt the entire $7 trillion a year global market for energy and transportation—but rather plays to the Northwest’s strong niche in aviation.

John Gardner

The entire conversation now among the 40 stakeholders is about business in a way that it wasn’t before in the mid-2000s boomlet of interest in biofuels, Gardner says. In Biofuels 1.0, as he calls it, the whole idea was based on pushing ethanol, with corn as the main raw material. Politicians were hoping that by spurring a new market for corn, they could wean many farmers off government subsidies, he says.

This time around, which Gardner calls Biofuels 2.0, the focus is on putting together the essential pieces of a market supply chain, specifically in the Northwest, and specifically for aviation. The group has started by working on identifying biomass feedstocks that are abundant or easily grown here (wood, oil seeds, or algae). While those raw materials might work in the interim, there has been an effort to convene scientists from WSU and their collaborators around the world to identify the key scientific challenges in modifying plants to become more efficient sources of biofuel. And all of that is being coordinated with a map of the key points of distribution (pipelines, for example) and consumption (Sea-Tac, Portland International Airport, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, WA, etc.)

Large-scale refining capacity is one missing link from what I can tell, and many readers, I’m sure, know all too well that these big infrastructure projects are risky (think Imperium Renewables’ Grays Harbor facility). Clearly, a biofuel refinery needs big, steady customers from its very early days to pencil out as an investment. Gardner assured me that the working groups haven’t succumbed to wishful thinking, or hometown boosterism that makes big corporations and politicians look good, but actually accomplishes little.

“This is an honest and candid attempt to put our finger on the pulse of the supply chain,” Gardner says. “We’re looking at the weak links, realistic timelines, and where there is money to be, and where investment may be foolish.”

Boeing’s involvement is obviously a key here. The aerospace giant has been concentrating on fuel efficiency for almost a decade now on its quest to commercialize its next-generation composite materials plane. Airlines that save money on operating costs (like fuel) can stay healthy enough to buy more Boeing planes. If biofuels, like the camelina-seed derived jet fuel from Seattle-based Targeted Growth, can be grown, refined, and consumed locally, the overall economic growth opportunity could be in the billions for the Northwest, Gardner says.

Then again, if Boeing and the rest of these stakeholders blare their trumpets on TV and don’t follow through with the jobs and economic growth they describe, then good luck trying to get public support for Biofuels 3.0. I’m very curious to hear what Gardner has to say about this plan at the upcoming Xconomy event. He sounded quite bullish when we spoke on the phone a few days ago, but not bubbly.

“We don’t need the hype,” Gardner says. “We need to deliver.”

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