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Policy support needed to develop Northwest aviation biofuels industry

The rich natural resources of the Evergreen State have been the basis for generations of prosperity – from forestry to farming. Even aerospace giant Boeing began making planes using Northwest wood, and then aluminum from Columbia River hydropower. Now the region’s aviation industry is reconnecting to its natural resources to address one of our world’s greatest challenges – supplying safe, sustainable fuels to power the next generation of flight.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel Northwest results from leadership by regional aviation players including Boeing, Alaska Airlines and airport managers in Seattle, Spokane and Portland, together with Washington State University. SAFN is the nation’s first stakeholder initiative to develop a “flight path” to make this vision a reality.

SAFN drew on the knowledge of more than 40 stakeholders representing all aspects of this industry, including feedstock and biofuel producers, environmental NGOs and researchers. Regional clean-energy nonprofit Climate Solutions managed the process and developed the report.

SAFN’s diverse participants explored the opportunities and challenges involved in building a regional sustainable aviation fuels industry. They developed consensus around specific recommendations and actions needed to build a commercially viable, environmentally sustainable aviation biofuels industry in the Northwest.

As the name indicates, sustainability has been in the forefront throughout the process. SAFN employed screening criteria being developed by Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, a major international stakeholder process involving biofuels producers, environmentalists and other interests. The goal was to identify Northwest feedstocks that can be produced without causing stress on food and water supplies or damage to forests and other ecosystems. The capacity to provide genuine greenhouse gas reductions was also central. SAFN identified potential biojet feedstocks in oilseeds grown in rotation with wheat, algae and residues from forestry, industry and cities.

SAFN participants acknowledge that supplies of sustainable biomass are limited, and so energy uses should be prioritized to sectors that do not have other good renewable energy alternatives. Other sectors now competing for biomass, such as power generation and ground transportation have other options. Aviation will need high-density liquid fuels for decades to come, and biofeedstocks represent the potential low carbon option. SAFN stakeholders agreed that policy support for sustainable aviation fuels should receive priority attention in Olympia and Washington, D.C.

The Northwest is a logical place to launch a pioneering effort aimed at identifying safe, sustainable, low-carbon resources. Commercial and military jets annually use 865 million gallons in the four-state Northwest region. Our agricultural, forest and urban areas have significant potential biomass resources. The region also has tremendous expertise through research universities, government agencies and industries.

Launching a new fuels industry would produce significant green jobs and tax revenues. While no specific regional projections are available, one national study found that producing 475 million gallons of biofuel resulted in 23,000 jobs across the economy, $4.1 billion in added GDP growth, $445 million in federal tax revenues, and $383 million for state and local governments.

What’s needed now is strong policy backing at all levels of government to spur creation of a sustainable fuels industry specifically for aviation. Even in today’s era of constrained budgets, state and local governments can take steps to support development of supply chains for aviation fuels. These include support for key infrastructure to serve advanced biofuel refineries, targeted job training and pilot programs.

SAFN stakeholders also support federal actions including programs for oilseed crops such as camelina, and growing federal investment in advanced biofuels research and development. Regional research institutions such as WSU and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are well positioned as advanced biofuels leaders. The region has developed strong models for collaborative research involving public universities, U.S. Department of Energy national labs and other institutions. Future funding should build on these models and specifically target aviation fuels as a critical priority.

With any new energy industry, policy support is critical in the early years. The payback will be a new regional industry that creates sustainable jobs by drawing on traditional regional economic strengths, including strong aviation, farming and forestry sectors. The time to start is now.

Patrick Mazza is research director for Climate Solutions, an organization that seeks practical solutions to global warming.