Northwest coalition wants sustainable aviation fuels to take off
There’s been plenty of hype about almost-ready biofuels that can supply the aviation industry with a low-carbon alternative to petroleum-based fuels. But none of them have passed the industry’s stringent approval standards and cost constraints.
Finding takeoff-ready alternatives is the focus of a new report from Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest, a first-of-its-kind consortium of Alaska Airlines, The Boeing Company, Port of Seattle, Port of Portland, Washington State University, Spokane International Airport and advocacy group Climate Solutions. The report details the most promising prospects for developing viable fuel sources for a carbon-constrained world.
“It is critical to the future of aviation that we develop a sustainable supply of aviation biofuels,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes president and CEO Jim Albaugh said in a news release announcing the report. “Airlines are particularly vulnerable to oil price volatility, and the aviation community must address this issue to maintain economic growth and further mitigate the environmental impacts of our industry.”
The group restricted its search to “drop-in” fuels that are chemically similar to conventional jet fuels and can work with existing planes and fueling infrastructure (no plug-in planes just yet). That still leaves a number of potential sources: algae, solid waste, forest residues and oil seeds like camelina.
The slim profit margins of the commercial flight industry mean price was a key consideration during the review process, which began last summer. Biofuels in particular have failed to offer price stability because the industry does not control the supply chain (although the same is true for petroleum).
The rising price of corn acutely demonstrates the volatility of feedstock prices, as Renata Bura, an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, told the AP. And despite the attention devoted to algae fuels, no one’s figured out a consistent, affordable production process.
"Everybody can claim we have the process and we can do [it]," Bura said. But when you ask to see the proof, it's not there yet.”
It’s a vexing sustainability problem. There are fewer alternatives than with ground transportation (biking across oceans is rarely an option) and planes are used longer than cars, so jets will need liquid, high energy-density fuels similar to petroleum-based fuels for the next 20 to 30 years.
Along with stressing the need to pursue multiple fuel sources, the study argues for the importance of making aviation biofuels a top government priority. Developing locally grown fuels would also be a boon to the Northwest.
“The course is clear that aviation biofuels are key to the future of sustainable air travel,” Lawrence J. Krauter, chief executive officer, Spokane International Airport, said in a news release. “We can no longer base our future on imported petroleum, especially if the United States wants to remain an aviation leader.”