Could the Northwest be the Saudi Arabia of aviation biofuels?

By:  AUBREY COHEN, seattlepi.com
Source: Seattle PI

The Pacific Northwest has what it takes to start a sustainable aviation biofuels industry, according to a new report.

'Regionally we have all the assets,' Jay Manning, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's chief of staff, said at a news conference Wednesday to release the 'Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest' report.

This includes universities, industry, raw materials, production infrastructure and political will, he said. 'The solution to the sustainable biofuels challenge is right here. It's right here in front of us. We just neeed to seize this opportunity.'

Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest bills itself as 'the nation's first regional stakeholder effort to explore the opportunities and challenges surrounding the production of sustainable aviation fuels.' Alaska Airlines, Boeing, the ports of Seattle and Portland, Spokane International Airport and Washington State University sponsored the effort, which included more than 40 groups.

Up until about five years ago, aviation industry experts focused on making airplanes more efficient and didn't think they could do anything about what kind of fuel those increasingly efficient planes burned, said Billy Glover, vice president of Environment and Aviation Policy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

'Today we've had many flights' using biofuels, he said. 'It's quite clear that it's not only a good fuel, it is a superior fuel.'

The key now is to develop it for commercial use, he said.

It's not just about helping the environment, Alaska Air Group Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bill Ayer noted. 'Fuel prices have tripled over the past decade, so we realize efficiency can only take us so far.'

And biofuels can be produced from domestic feedstocks, decreasing our reliance on foreign energy sources, according to the report.

The report recommends focusing on fuel make from oilseeds, forest residues, solid waste and algae. The long-term vision is an industry that is viable on its own, but no fuel has gotten there without initial government support, such as funding and incentives for research and development, the boosters said.

Experts think biofuels could satisfy about one-third of the energy use now served by petroleum, according to John Gardner, vice president for Advancement and External Affairs at Washington State University. Aviation deserves a big share of that, because other uses, such as ground transportation and electricity generation, have more alternatives, he said.

In fact, it's possible to fill the world's entire avition fuel appetite with biofuels, Glover said.

But the initial goal is to get to 1 percent biofuel in the next five years, he said. 'That may sound like a small amount, but that is the hardest 1 percent. And when we get to that we'll have an idea of how to get to 5 and then 10 and then 15, and we won't stop.'

President Barack Obama on March 30 called for development of four commercial-scale biofuel refineries within two years, the report noted. 'The Northwest is well positioned to site one or more of these refineries because it has key conditions for success. The region has strong companies, concentrated demand, leading expertise and significant biomass resources. It has also laid the groundwork by engaging key stakeholders in developing consensus.'

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., has proposed a bill to address one of the report's key recommendations by extending long-term military contracts with biofuel producers from 5 years to 15. On Wednesday Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

"Building our biofuel supply chain will create jobs and new economic opportunities in the State of Washington," Inslee said in a news release. "This common sense, bipartisan legislation will give the military access to the clean, home grown energy to make our troops more secure and unleash private investment. Washingtonians are leading the way in the clean energy economy and I'm proud to be working with Senator Murray and Senator Cantwell on this legislation."

The Washington Democrats noted that the Defense Department is the largest single consumer of energy in the U.S., accounting for around 2 percent of the country's consumption.

The report recommends allowing government agencies, including the military, to sign long-term contracts for aviation biofuels, and also:

  • Having government support aviation biofuels at least at the level of other transportation and energy sectors;
  • Continuing and expanding fedral programs that support aviation biofuels;
  • Ensuring that aviation biofuels qualify for federal Renewable Identification Credits, which suppliers must get to show they're meeeting requirements to blend in renewable fuels;
  • Getting state and local support for support for key infrastructure needed for  biofuel refineries, job training and pilot projects;
  • Giving public universities funding that focuses on aviation biofuels;
  • Analyzing the full lifecycle impacts of potential biofuels to ensure they actually cut greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts.