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Caldwell: Military elevates biofuel’s status

When the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds spun, rolled and shrieked through two days of performances at Andrews Air Force Base a week ago, the demonstration was not just about aeronautic stunts. Two of the six F-16s were burning a 50-50 mix of regular jet fuel and biofuel.

Could anything more strongly illustrate the service’s confidence in what many in military and civil aviation hope will be the fuel of the not-so-distant future?

The Air Force, Navy, several airlines, and manufacturers like Boeing Co. have been testing hydrotreated renewable jet — synthetic kerosene — for some time. This summer, an international standards-setting body is expected to conclude that HRJ is a chemical twin of the real thing.

Environmentally, the fuel could be a vast improvement over the petroleum-based version.

Feedstocks for HRJ production range from oilseed to algae to forest and municipal waste. All are renewable.

And all are in the Northwest in abundance perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the country.

In a report released last month, a task force that included 40 stakeholders concluded the region has a unique combination of farm and timber resources, aviation history, and academic and industrial expertise that should put us at the forefront of biofuels development.

The Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest study included a map of biomass resources in the U.S. that showed a remarkable concentration in the region’s forests and prime agricultural areas.

Cities along the Interstate 5 corridor generate plenty of waste. Algae is a work in progress, but the potential is there.

So is the demand, especially from the U.S. Department of Defense, which buys 3.8 billion gallons of jet fuel annually. Knowing, in money and blood, the cost of relying on — and fighting in — some of the most volatile areas on the globe, DOD wants to meet one-half its energy needs from biofuels and other alternative sources by 2020.

That kind of commitment will be necessary if would-be biofuel plant developers and their financiers are going to go forward. To help create that certainty, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., last week introduced a bill that would allow the military to extend long-term contracts for fuel out 15 years, instead of the five-year limit now in place.

Fairchild Air Force Base, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and other bases in Idaho, Montana and Oregon would be ready consumers of Northwest-produced biofuels. So would Spokane International Airport, Sea-Tac Airport and Portland International Airport. SANF says total use in the Northwest exceeds 800 million gallons annually.

Spokane airport spokesman Todd Woodard says the proximity of these consumers to regional biofuels producers would minimize transportation requirements, further enhancing HRJ’s attractiveness as a way to reduce emissions that are warming the global atmosphere.

He also notes SAFN was sensitive to the major knock on ethanol, the gasoline additive. Oilseeds are not expected to displace food crops, as corn planted for ethanol production does.

But there may well be other questions about the sustainability of any feedstock, “flight paths” SAFN suggests be more fully studied.

The task force makes several other recommendations urging a stepped up national and regional focus on aviation biofuels research and infrastructure development, as well as loan supports and other incentives to help the industry take wing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already undertaken some of this work under its Farm to Fly effort undertaken with the Air Transport Association and Boeing.

In March, President Obama announced his support for four commercial-scale biofuels plants.

The U.S. needs to get this done for strategic reasons, environmental reasons and job reasons; thousands of new jobs could be created from farm to factory.

For the Northwest, it’s a natural.