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Port of Seattle holds first summit on sustainable jet fuels

The Port of Seattle is holding its first summit on sustainable aviation fuels. It’s part of a push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from flights that originate at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

A little over two years ago, in November 2016, an Alaska Airlines flight took off from Sea-Tac powered by 20 percent biofuel made from Northwest forest residuals. This was the result of a multimillion dollar demonstration project that pulled in expertise from the University of Washington and Washington State University, and was funded by the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

The flight, bound for Washington, D.C., was a first for commercial aviation. Now, the port is trying to expand the use of the sustainable biofuels it pioneered.

“Our goal is in 10 years, every plane will have 10 percent within it,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Fred Felleman, who estimates that reduction would eliminate the use of some 80 million gallons of jet fuel per year. And the port also has pledged that all of the biofuels it will provide will be sustainably sourced.

“And regionally sourced,” Felleman said. “Because if it’s coming from overseas, the carbon benefit is reduced.”

But a lot still needs to happen to boost biofuel markets for the port to meet its goals. They know it’s feasible, based on the demonstration work started in 2011. Multiple work groups and partnerships continue to forge the pathways to make locally sourced, sustainable jet fuels from feedstocks, which include everything from wood scraps and specially grown seed oils to discarded restaurant grease. But better policies are needed for all that to actually lead to cleaner air here.   

“In the state of Washington one of the issues that we’re going to have is that most of the fuels that we produce here right now, go to the state of California,” said Mike Wolcott, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at WSU in Pullman. 

His work helped power that first commercial flight using biofuel from regional residuals. Wolcott now directs the Federal Aviation Administration’s Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels and Environment. And he says California’s policies make it more lucrative for producers here to sell to them: “Because they have a stable policy at a state level, where the feds have not been able to implement things.”

Wolcott says putting some kind of a price on carbon — or implementing the clean fuel standard, currently before state lawmakers — would help.

Passage of the latter is one of the Port of Seattle’s top priorities in the current legislative session. Oregon and British Columbia also have adopted low-carbon fuel standards, leaving Washington as an outlier on the West Coast.

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