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June 02, 2011

US Pacific Northwest Looks to Jump-Start Green Jet Fuel Industry

by Rosanne Skirble

New report finds signs of an emerging market

The U.S. Pacific Northwest is a good place to jump-start a renewable jet fuel industry, a new report finds.

The study, "Powering the Next Generation of Flight," looks at the challenges and opportunities of developing a domestic renewable jet fuel industry that can both reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil and help clean the air.

The thousands of jet aircraft that crisscross the skies each day all around the world account for two percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted worldwide.

Military jets test biofuels

Military fuel consumption makes the Department of Defense the single largest consumer of petroleum in the United States. And, they are considering biofuels.

Last year the Navy’s F-18 fighter planes ran test flights using jet fuel partially made from plant oils. In May the U.S. Air Force’s famed Thunderbirds unit of F-16 fighter/bombers became the first aerial demonstration team to fly on so-called biofuel.

Also this year successful tests were conducted with the Air Force’s big C-17 transport aircraft.

Emerging biojet fuel market

These biofuel test runs are signs of an emerging market, according to the new report released by a private consortium called Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest, which supports a renewable jet fuel industry in America’s Pacific Northwest.

The report says running a jet engine on a blend of biofuel, which is an alcohol refined from plants such as algae, maize or soybeans  is much less polluting, and less costly, than using pure petroleum-based fuel.

And using biofuels more extensively in aircraft could reduce U.S. dependence on foreign petroleum and protect airline companies, in particular, from volatility in the fuel market.

Keith Loveless, a vice president with Alaska Airlines, says his company saw a 47 percent hike in aircraft fuel prices this year.

“Other airlines have had even worse effects.  The wild swings and prices have resulted in the loss of hundreds and thousands of jobs in our industry.”

Jump-starting the industry

Loveless says unlike other industries, aviation has limited alternatives to improve energy efficiency or stabilize cost.

“We don’t have anything like an electric car that’s out there. You are not going to see solar panels on wings any time soon so we really need to prioritize the application of sustainable biofuels to the aviation sector.”

The report finds the Pacific Northwest is a good place for a renewable jet fuel industry because many airline companies and airplane manufacturers, such as Boeing, are based there.  

And, report co-author Patrick Mazza with the environmental group Climate Solutions says the region has a wide variety of biomass resources to choose from.

“Unlike our current bio-fuel industry which largely relies on two crops - corn and soy beans - we’re talking about a whole range of feed stocks sources including oil seed crops, algae and forest residues.”

The new report envisions a supply chain of growers to produce biomass, refineries to make the fuel and a market of airline companies to purchase it.

John Plaza is the founder and chief executive officer of Imperium Renewables.

Since its launch in 2004, the company has become one of the largest independent bio-diesel producers in the United States. Its refinery has the capacity to produce 400 million liters (100 million gallons) of bio-diesel fuel a  year.  

Plaza says Imperium is ready to be a major supplier of sustainable jet fuel.

“Imperium is focused on building that technology at our existing bio-diesel plant and adding on to the facility’s capabilities. So in other words, we are not talking about converting bio-diesel. We’re talking about building additional capacity at our existing facility and using much of the infrastructure that’s there, for example, the storage and the logistics that we have with shipping and rail and truck.”

Plaza says biofuels have met rigorous tests for use in military and commercial aircraft. To forge ahead and build a jet-fuel industry, he believes new federal energy policies and production incentives will be needed.

“And I think that that is really the next step is getting federal support in the realm of long-term policy and ideally purchase commitments from the Department of Defense for these type of fuels to allow for the investors to feel comfortable that this is a credible, solid business that they will get a return on.”

Seeking government support


Washington State representative Jay Inslee has introduced a law in Congress that would extend those Department of Defense contracts from five to 15 years.

“This should be a totally bi-partisan issue.This is good for national security.This is good for economic growth. I’m hopeful on this long-term contract issue that we get this done this year.I’m hopeful.”

Experts predict the potential biofuel market in the United States could be 76 trillion liters a year, supplying both military and commercial aircraft. The Boeing Company’s vice president for environment and aviation policy,

Billy Glover, hopes renewables can capture at least one percent of that market within five years. “We’ve set that as a near term target. But the first one percent is the hardest one percent.” And, Glover adds, from there it’s a matter of scaling up to grow the market, with a model that can meet the demand for jet biofuel not only in the United States but around the world.