Biofuels for aviation are gradually climbing from novelty toward commercialization. Washington researchers have been among the foremost developing the technology, and Gov. Chris Gregoire last week signed legislation that will help Washington remain among the leaders striving to make the technology competitive with conventional jet fuel.
At the rate fuel prices are increasing, that could be as soon as next month.
But designing, building and operating aviation biofuels production plants will be a multiyear process, and an expensive one.
To help the massive investment required pencil out, HB 2422 authorizes the Housing Finance Commission to dedicate some of its bonding authority to biofuels projects, guided in part by a work group evaluating the opportunities and challenges. Inexpensive financing could determine where plants are built.
Plants considered “projects of statewide interest” – defined by investment, jobs and location – will also have their permit applications fast-tracked.
The work group will build on the research published last year by Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest, which focused on the Northwest’s many advantages, from feedstocks like wood and oilseed, to refineries, to buyers. Boeing Co., Alaska Airlines and the U.S. Department of Defense have been strong supporters. Washington State University and the University of Washington are among the leading research institutions.
With the concentration of military installations in Washington, the DOD will be a particularly important player. The U.S. Navy wants to reduce its use of imported fuels by 50 percent by 2020, and last week it awarded a contract to a California company making fuel from the kind of woody biomass that could be a primary feedstock for fuels in the Northwest. The Navy is expected to commit funding to several other biofuel facilities but has not yet requested more proposals.
Meanwhile, Boeing and competitors Airbus and Embraer have agreed to support biofuels as they, too, look for more secure fuel sources and a partial solution to the pollution that the industry generates.
And, last week, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that fuel from woody biomass might be available at $3.40 per gallon by 2018.
Still, caution is advised.
Washington stumbled in its efforts to support biofuels, including biodiesel. Building a supply chain, finding markets and overcoming technological challenges are not easy tasks, made more complex by the volatility of pricing for conventional fuels. The industry has lost some federal government supports.
The legislation specifies several ways funds raised by selling bonds could help encourage aviation biofuel commercialization. Private-sector participation should be a must.
Aviation biofuels sounds like a natural fit for Washington’s economy. HB 2422 won overwhelming support in both the House and Senate. If state officials can manage the takeoff, Washington will be on its way.