Environmentalists love the idea of biofuels for airplanes because they produce significantly fewer carbon emissions than petroleum-based fuel.
The downside? Biofuels are more expensive, and as we all know, airlines are obsessed with costs.
Change may be coming thanks to the Port of Seattle, sustainable jet fuel company SkyNRG, and Sir Richard Branson’s nonprofit organization, Carbon War Room. Last week, the trio announced they are partnering on a study to devise strategies to make up for the difference in fuel prices. The hope is that, if they can compensate airlines for the discrepancy, airlines will opt for the more eco-friendly option.
The partnership was first reported on GeekWire, in an article that indicated that members of the biofuels partnership hope to have some results by February 2017.
Until then, informal first steps for the plan involve building infrastructure at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that would allow all airlines to use biofuel for their passenger jets. If the partners achieve this goal, Sea-Tac would become the first American airport to provide biofuel for all its passenger planes. According to the GeekWire piece, the only other airport in the world to achieve this feat is Oslo International Airport in Oslo, Norway. (It’s worth noting that here in the United States, United Airlines uses biofuel in its airplanes departing from Los Angeles International Airport.)
But expanding the use of cleaner fuels made from sugar, corn, wood, and other crops can be complicated. For starters, producing biofuel can be expensive, as we mentioned above, especially because there currently aren’t ample processing facilities. Second, biofuels do not completely replace petroleum-based fuel when used in jets; rather, the two types are mixed, which results in a blend that can cut carbon emissions by up to half. Finally, the factors that drive the prices of both biofuel and petroleum-based fuel fluctuate independently, which makes predicting prices—and price discrepancies—difficult at best.
Despite this, as the GeekWire article explains, the use of biofuels is certainly primed to expand. The Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a national coalition of airlines, biofuel producers, and government agencies, has noted that domestic airlines use roughly 23 billion gallons of aviation fuel a year. Right now, biofuel use accounts for a minuscule portion of this amount, but the group aims to manufacture 400 million gallons of biofuels a year by 2020. At the same time, the airline industry and the federal government plan to cut commercial aviation carbon emissions to 50 percent of 2012 levels by 2050, and a July 2016 U.S. Department of Energy report concluded that the nation has the potential to produce at least 1 billion tons of crops and biomass from forests and waste materials—all of which can be used to create biofuel.
At Sea-Tac, Alaska Airlines also could play a big role in biofuel adaptation. The Seattle-based carrier experimented with biofuels throughout 2016 and expects to complete its first cross-country flight with a wood-based biofueled passenger jet next year.
Whatever happens, it’s clear the partnership among the Port of Seattle, SkyNRG, and the Carbon War Room will play a significant role in advancing the acceptance of biofuel use in the airline industry. In an era when climate change is an increasing concern, anything to reduce emissions in the skies is worthwhile.
Especially if it means no additional cost burden to the rest of us.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.