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Photo: Alaska Airlines

One big hurdle in getting airlines to use biofuels is the cost difference biofuels and petroleum-based fuels. Right now, petroleum-based jet fuels are cheaper. But biofuels produce fewer carbon emissions.

So the Port of Seattle, sustainable jet fuel company SkyNRG and Sir Richard Branson’s nonprofit Carbon War Room announced today that they are partnering on a study to find out how to compensate airlines for the difference in fuel prices. Backers of the study hope to have some results by February.

Their goal to set up a way so all airlines at SeaTac International Airport can economically use biofuel for their passenger jets. They want SeaTac to become the first American airport to provide biofuel for all of its passenger planes. Worldwide, only the airport in Oslo, Norway, does that. In the United States, United Airlines uses biofuel in its airplanes leaving Los Angeles International Airport.

John Creighton, president of the Port of Seattle Commission.
John Creighton, president of the Port of Seattle Commission.

“We’re intrigued by the Oslo model. … We’re interested in being the model for the rest of the country,” said John Creighton, president of the Port of Seattle Commission, in an interview.

SkyNRG supplies biofuels for jets worldwide. Branson founded the nonprofit Carbon War Room in 2009 to tackle carbon emissions with business-based solutions.

Biofuels do not totally replace petroleum-based fuels when used in jets. Instead, they are mixed with petroleum-based fuels to reduce carbon emissions.

In an interview, Creighton, Elizabeth Leavitt, the Port of Seattle’s director for the environment and sustainability, and Stephanie Meyn, the port’s senior environment program manager, pointed to a number of gaps in information needed to figure out how to compensate airlines for using biofuels.

One problem is that the prices of biofuels and petroleum-based fuels are constantly fluctuating. Also there are several processes — with varying expenses — for creating biofuels. And there are several sources for raw materials for biofuels: sugars, corn, other crops and wood. These sources have their own constantly shifting economic pictures.

“We have to drill down on what the costs will be,” Creighton said.

Another unknown is where the money will come from to compensate airlines for the greater cost of using biofuels, Creighton, Leavitt and Meyn said. A central question is how the production of more biofuels can be spurred so it becomes more economical at larger volumes.

The nation uses roughly 23 billion gallons of aviation fuel a year, according to the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a national coalition of airlines, biofuel producers and government agencies. CAAFI has set a target of manufacturing 400 million gallons of biofuels a year by 2020, or 1.7 percent.

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. The airline industry and the federal government are aiming to cut commercial aviation carbon emissions to 50 percent of 2012 levels by 2050.

In a press release, Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of Carbon War Room, pointed to a December 2015 agreement signed by 192 nations to hold global warming to less than an increase of two degrees. That goal “cannot be achieved without the participation of the aviation industry, with its emissions projected to consume approximately a quarter of the world’s remaining carbon budget by 2050,” he said.

Creighton said SeaTac is interested in reducing the Seattle region’s carbon footprint. “We need to work really hard to be a good neighbor,” he said.

Meanwhile, two major steps in Washington’s infant jet biofuel industry are expected to take place in the next few months. 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.

In addition, Alaska Airlines is expected to fly its first cross-country wood-based biofueled passenger jetliner from Seattle to somewhere on the East Coast. Alaska Airlines has been test flying passenger planes with biofuels throughout 2016. 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.

“The state of Washington is trying to stay three to four steps ahead of everyone else,” said Leavitt, the port’s director for the environment and sustainability.

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