Port of Seattle pushes for sustainable aviation fuels, but it’s not easy being green


Swissport fuel manager Jarid Svraka fuels an Alaska Airlines flight powered with a 20 percent blend of biofuel made from wood waste at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 2016. (Alaska Airlines Photo)

For years, the Port of Seattle has been talking about weaning Seattle-Tacoma International Airport off fossil fuels, but now it’s getting serious about taking action.

“At a certain point in time, you just have to say, ‘Well, let’s make a run for it,’ ” Port Commissioner Fred Felleman told GeekWire. “It can’t be just an intellectual pursuit.”

But it’s not totally up to the port: A new network of interlocking infrastructures will have to be created, connecting farmers with refiners, distributors and users.

That’s the motivation behind this week’s Washington Sustainable Aviation Fuels Summit, set to take place on Thursday and Friday at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle. The event, hosted by Earth Day Northwest 2020, is meant to bring together stakeholders who can get Sea-Tac closer to its goal of having at least 10 percent of its fuel come from sustainable sources by 2028.

One way to get to the goal is to have every plane that takes off from Sea-Tac fueled with a 90-10 “drop-in” blend of conventional fuel and biofuel.

There’s lots of good news about sustainable jet fuel: Companies such as Alaska Airlines and Boeing have experimented with blends that draw upon sources ranging from wood waste to camelina weeds to used cooking oil to algae. Airports in Los Angeles and San Francisco have recruited partners to provide a foothold for biofuels. Studies suggest that, taken to the max, such fuels could reduce an airplane’s carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent.

Felleman said leading the transition to sustainable fuels is one of the best things Sea-Tac can do to address the climate change challenge. “We are committed to this, not only to address the looming climate crisis but also to help the communities around the airport,” he said.

All of the industries that have to be involved in building a sustainable-fuel infrastructure are represented in Washington state, from feedstock farmers to the folks building the airplanes. “It it can happen anywhere, it should be possible to make it happen here,” Felleman said.

So why hasn’t it?

“It’s always cart and horse,” Felleman said. “We can’t guarantee use if we can’t guarantee price, and we can’t guarantee price unless somebody produces it.”

The Pacific Northwest led the way in talking about aviation biofuels as far back as 2011, thanks to an effort known as Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest. But states such as California and Oregon have made more headway, due in part to legislation that created carbon credit markets for fuel producers. The credit system creates financial incentives for low-carbon fuels, and disincentives for fuels that don’t meet a low-carbon standard.

Similar legislation is under consideration in the Washington Legislature as H.B. 1110, but it’s not clear whether it’ll become law during the current session. King County, the Port of Seattle and most environmental groups strongly favor the measure, while groups such as the Associated General Contractors, the Association of Washington Business and the Western States Petroleum Association are strongly opposed.

H.B. 1110 is intended to bridge the price gap between petroleum-based and alternative aviation fuels — a gap that’s already shrinking as market forces and concerns about carbon emissions take hold.

“The price has come down on sustainable fuels dramatically,” said Ray Mabus, who led the charge as secretary of the Navy in the Obama administration.

Mabus’ efforts were motivated by the Pentagon’s long-term concern about the effects of climate change. “Energy was a vulnerability for the military and the Navy,” he recalled.

During Mabus’ tenure, the Navy took a number of steps to advance the biofuel cause, including naval exercises that relied upon alternative fuel blends and a project undertaken in cooperation with the Energy and Agriculture departments to boost the production of price-competitive, military-grade biofuel. The Navy even celebrated Earth Day in 2010 by flying a “Green Hornet” — an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet powered by a 50-50 biofuel blend.

Now Mabus heads an advisory firm that helps organizations deal with change by building their resilience and sustainability, and it’s in that capacity that he’ll be addressing the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Summit on Thursday morning.

“I do think that sustainable fuel, particularly in the aviation industry, is the future,” Mabus said. “And I think that the leadership that Washington state and the airport are showing is going to be crucial, not just for Washington, but for the country.”

Mabus isn’t the only one who feels that way: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who kicked off his presidential campaign last week, will make an appearance at a summit reception Thursday night. Inslee touted the transition to alternative military fuels as far back as 2011, when he was in Congress — and he’s sure to work the issue into his climate-oriented pitch for the presidency.

There’s a $200 registration fee for the Washington Sustainable Aviation Fuels Summit. Check out the summit’s website for further information about speakers, agenda and the online registration process.

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