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Northwest pushes to front in sustainable aviation fuels development

Posted by suzanne at Oct 03, 2011 11:50 AM |
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The US Department of Agriculture Secretary visited Seattle last week to announce that teams led by Washington State University and the University of Washington had won grants totaling $80 million to develop technologies and feedstocks for advanced biofuels for the transportation sector.

Northwest pushes to front in sustainable aviation fuels development

Ross Macfarlane, Sr. Advisor, Business Partnerships

By Ross Macfarlane
Climate Solutions

The Northwest is emerging as one of the nation’s most dynamic centers for development of sustainable, low-carbon aviation fuels, and a regional stakeholder process facilitated by Climate Solutions is given wide credit.  

US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Seattle last week to announce that teams led by Washington State University (WSU) and the University of Washington (UW) had won grants totaling $80 million to develop technologies and feedstocks for advanced drop-in biofuels. These fuels for aviation and other transport sectors perform equal to or better than conventional petroleum fuels and are made from wood residues and other non-food materials. 

The announcement was a huge boost to Northwest leadership in sustainable fuels: these teams won more than half of the $136 million awarded by USDA nationally.  Although WSU and UW led these teams, they include universities and private companies from around the region, including Oregon State, University of Idaho, Western Washington University, Weyerhaeuser, Greenwood Resources, and Zeachem. The WSU grant is specifically focused on creating sustainable fuels for Northwest states.

It came as a surprise to grant applicants and people familiar with the process that two universities in one state were winners in a highly competitive national process, taking the lion’s share of funding available nationally.  

Both the Secretary’s comments and conversations with key USDA staff confirmed that these victories had a lot to do with the efforts of the stakeholders involved in Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) to create a common vision for sustainable fuels and to look across the entire supply chain.  We are gratified to have played a major role in that effort.  

When we released the SAFN report last May, we were very excited that an incredibly diverse group of stakeholders had come together in support of strong recommendations and a concrete action plan for how we could create safe and sustainable alternatives. And we were very pleased with the national and global recognition. But we all recognized that the flight path was just preparation for take-off and that we needed to focus our efforts on reaching the ultimate goal: commercial production of sustainable fuels at scale in the region.  

Every flight path involves waypoints, and Wednesday’s announcement was just the latest indicator that these efforts are paying off and we are getting closer to our destination.  

Some key waypoints since the report release:  

  • In May, the Department of Defense (DOD) started a competition for advanced aviation biofuels that will be delivered at the Navy’s Manchester Fuel Depot on Puget Sound. This fulfills a Navy goal to sail a Green strike fleet by 2012 – It will be sailing from Puget Sound.  It is also an important step to its goal for a Great Green Fleet with advanced biofuels replacing half of petroleum use by 2020. This is a national security goal. The DOD was an important SAFN participant, and the SAFN process made an important contribution to focusing Navy efforts in Puget Sound, DOD contacts confirmed. 
  • In June, Boeing flew its latest version of the 747 to the Paris Air Show in the first transatlantic flights on biofuel blends. Fuel in the tanks was produced from  Northwest  crops  by NW companies.  Sustainable fuels were a major topic at the Air Show, with the Washington exhibit focused heavily on the leadership of SAFN participants.
  • In July, the global standards group that decides whether fuels are safe for use in jet airplanes, ASTM International, approved the first major category of the types of that we considered in the SAFN work. This approval cleared the way for commercial production and use of these fuels
  • In August, USDA announced awards under the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) to help NW farmers plant camelina for jet fuel.  That same month, President Obama announced that the USDA, Navy and the Department of Energy were pooling resources to invest $510 million to support commercial production of renewable fuels for aviation and marine purposes.

Wednesday’s award shows continued progress and recognition of our regional leadership.  In announcing the award, Secretary Vilsack stressed that the Northwest teams had risen above the competition by developing a common vision and assembling diverse groups of stakeholders across the supply chain from where the biomass is produced through the refinery to the airport. In fact, the WSU team made SAFN a formal stakeholder participant in its grant application and work plan. In private conversations USDA staff directly confirmedthat the SAFN effort played a pivotal role in gaining the grants by spotlighting regional leadership. 

The region showed unity and common purpose in by creating a coordinated approach to biofuel development  across the full supply chain, from feedstock production to fuels manufacture and delivery to markets  significantly; the SAFN included the region’s major aviation fuel users, the three largest airports and Alaska Airlines.

The next big step that we are eagerly anticipating is the USDA’s announcement of loan guarantees to support commercial scale refineries for these fuels: several Northwest based teams are in the running.  We hope that continued momentum and regional leadership translates into more exciting announcements in the coming months.

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