Two major steps in Washington’s infant jet biofuel industry are expected to take place in the next couple months.
In November, a study group is expected to provide the Port of Seattle with a report studying the feasibility of a biofuel-blending operation for jets using SeaTac airport.
Also before 2016 ends, Alaska Airlines is expected to fly its first cross-country wood-based biofueled passenger jetliner from Seattle to somewhere on the East Coast.
But Washington is several years away from becoming a significant center for the creation and use of biofuels for commercial airliners. The technologies are here or almost here, experts say. But the economics of jet biofuels are an incomplete, complicated and shifting picture that has a long way to go before being understood.
“It’s not going to happen overnight. But it will happen in the long run,” said Ellie Wood, Boeing’s regional director for environmental strategy.
Biofuels refer to a wide range of fuels created by different processes for a wide variety of purposes. They are created with sugar, or with cover crops such as camelina, or with wood wastes such a leftover slash of downed trees, among other sources. A July 2016 U.S. Department of Energy report concluded that the nation has the partly-untapped potential to produce at least 1 billion tons of crops, biomass from forests and other waste materials capable of replacing 30 percent of the United States’ 2005 petroleum consumption.
Biofuels result in fewer carbon emissions than petroleum-based fuels.
“We need to decouple the growth of our industry from the growth of emissions,” Wood said.
The airline industry and the federal government are aiming to cut commercial aviation carbon emissions to 50 percent of 2012 levels by 2050, said Ralph Cavalieri, Washington State University’s associate vice president for alternative energy, who is also head of the Richland, Wash.-based Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Washington State University and several other universities created the Richland center in 2012.
In the case of jet fuel, biofuels are blended with petroleum-based fuels to cut down carbon emissions. ASTM International — a more-than-a-century-old organization that sets technical standards for numerous industries worldwide — tests the blended fuel to see if it meets its requirements for jet fuel. ASTM has certified five biofuels for jet fuel use since 2011.
“Conversion is a straightforward process. Nothing goes in a jet plane that hasn’t gone through a rigorous certification process,” Cavalieri said.
Boeing began thinking about using biofuels in 2008 and first tested biofuels on one of its planes in 2011. That same year, Boeing, the Port of Seattle and Alaska Airlines began talking about exploring biofuels in a joint effort. That effort ended up with the three announcing in 2015 that they plan to build a biofuel blending-and-fueling operation for airliners using SeaTac.
“We wanted to send a message to the market around the world that SeaTac is open for business,” Wood said. That market includes suppliers of raw materials for biofuels and biofuel producers. Wood hopes that this will encourage the presence of such producers in the Pacific Northwest.
So far, only two commercial airports — in Los Angeles and Oslo, Norway — have set up permanent jet biofuel blending operations. Wood noted that the Los Angeles operation is located 16 miles from the airport, with United Airlines as its steady user. The transportation logistics and economics, plus the mechanics of setting up such an operation, are significant factors in locating such a facility, she said.
So if the Boeing-SeaTac-Alaska Airlines study gives a green light to a biofuels operation in November, a major question will be where it will recommend that facility will be located. The potential timetable is another question. With lots of factors needing to be tackled, Wood said an aggressive schedule would be 2020 to 2025 for completion.
Alaska’s upcoming wood-based biofuel flight is another milestone. The airline has already used corn-based biofuel for a cross-country trip in July. The upcoming Alaska Airlines flight will use biofuel created by adapting chemical processes used by the wood-pulping industry. Farmers can sell corn for food or biofuel — depending on which industry provides better prices. Wood-based biofuel facilities won’t have to compete against agricultural prices.
But biofuels overall have a long way to go before becoming a major factor in aviation regionally and nationally.
The nation uses roughly 23 billion gallons of aviation fuel a year, said Steve Csonka, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a national coalition of airlines, biofuel producers and government agencies. He said CAAFI has set a target of manufacturing 400 million gallons a year by 2020 — 1.7 percent of 23 billion gallons. “It’s not hard to to see a path to 400 million gallons by 2020,” Csonka said.
But Washington state’s role in producing a significant part of that 400 million gallons is hazy.
AltAir of Seattle decided to move its facility from Grays Harbor County in Washington state to the site 16 miles from Los Angeles International Airport. In 2015, it began a contract to provide 15 million gallons of biofuel over three years to United Airlines at the Los Angeles airport. Those 15 million gallons are slightly more than a third of AltAir’s current production. That facility has a design capacity of producing 100 million gallons of jet biofuel annually. Csonka believes AltAir’s facility can produce 200 million gallons annually in five to seven years.
The Renewable Energy Group has a functioning biodiesel plant in Grays Harbor County. But biodiesel is not in jet fuel. However, there is an effort underway to get ASTM International to approve one type of biodiesel for airliner use.
Interviewed experts point to economics as a big hurdle for jet biofuel production. None of them could provide solid figures on how much more expensive biofuel is compared to petroleum-based fuel — citing constantly shifting prices and other fluctuating market forces as greatly complicating the picture. However, all agreed that biofuel is more expensive than petroleum-based fuel.
“The price differential is still a killer,” said Peter Moulton, state bioenergy coordinator for the Washington Department of Commerce.
Biofuels do not have the government subsidies and tax breaks enjoyed by the oil industry. “We’ve heavily subsidized the petroleum industry,” Moulton said.
Big Oil also has much greater political clout than the biofuels industry, including in Washington state, to keep that advantage.
No biofuel tax breaks exist in Washington state. Meanwhile, one state tax break was designed solely for the timber industry, but is now applied to the oil industry through a semantic loophole. The GOP-controlled Senate has fought for the past four years to keep that $40 million-to-$50 million annual tax break intact despite Democratic efforts to repeal, including Gov. Jay Inslee’s now-dead push to shift that money to education. For four years, the state senate Republicans have said that eliminating that tax break is a deal-breaker in budget negotiations, despite Washington’s five oil refineries earning in the neighborhood of $1 billion in profits in some years.
The oil industry has contributed significantly to the election campaigns of several key Washington Republican state senators in recent years. State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, represents a district with two oil refineries and is chairman of the Senate Energy, Environmental & Telecommunications Committee — and does not like Inslee’s push for low-carbon fuel standards for motor vehicles. In 2015, Ericksen accused Inslee of wanting $4-per-gallon gasoline prices to help the biofuel industry — an accusation that the governor’s office called “ridiculous.”
In fact, the Senate Republicans held up a $15 billion, 10-year package of state transportation fix-it projects in 2015 — telling Democrats that if low-carbon fuel standards for motor vehicles were installed in any way, they would cut $700 million worth of mass transit and similar green-oriented projects from that 2015 package. Inslee decided to punt on low-carbon fuel standards for vehicles in return for keeping the mass transit money intact.
Consequently, November’s legislative elections will signal if biofuel-related bills stand a chance in the 2017 session. Right now, no one has publicly proposed such legislation for 2017.
The bottom line is that the national and regional biofuel industries lag greatly behind the oil industry in government subsidies and tax breaks, which they need to become more competitive with the petroleum corporations, interviewed experts said. When jet biofuel operations become more economical, they can produce more fuel, with the increased volumes bringing down prices for customers, experts said.
“Yes,” Wood said, “it is economically feasible.”
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to clarify that the Boeing-SeaTac study report due in November is to determine the feasibility of a SeaTac biofuel blending operation. Decisions on how and where to locate the facility will be included if the operation is determined feasible.