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Study Looks at Biofuel for Flights Out of Sea-Tac

  • Tuesday, 17 January 2017 15:13

Seattle Pi

January 13, 2017

By Daniel DeMay

Sea-Tac Airport could become one of the first major U.S. airports to start using biofuel for every flight that leaves its tarmac.

That’s the lofty goal that drove a study released yesterday on how to build the infrastructure needed to get aviation biofuel into Sea-Tac’s fuel supply.

“Here in Seattle, we’re in such a unique position to lead in this industry,” said John Creighton, president of the Seattle Port Commission. “We live in a community that inspires us to think bigger about sustainability and in the Northwest, we understand that climate change is real.”

The study is the work of a partnership between the Port of Seattle, Alaska Airlines and Boeing, and focused on finding a site where biofuel could be mixed with jet fuel (planes can only run up to a 50-50 mix of aviation biofuel and jet fuel) and then fed into the existing fuel supply for the airport.

Widespread use of biofuel could significantly reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, sulphur, soot and other particulates from commercial aircraft -- a footprint of 50 to 80 percent less than regular jet fuel, according to the study.

David Williams, with engineering firm WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, led the study, looking first at 29 different sites with access to the Olympic Pipeline -- the primary source of jet fuel from northern refineries. Williams narrowed it down to three and found that the best short-term solution would be to incorporate the biofuel infrastructure at the existing Sea-Tac fuel farm.

Biofuel could be trucked in, mixed and added to the Olympic Pipeline supply at that site for the lowest cost -- estimated at $13.95 million.

But to get to a large-scale operation -- the study’s goal is 50 million gallons of biofuel per year initially, ramping up to 100 million gallons after 2025 --  found that creating the infrastructure at one of the three northern refineries would the best long-term solution, albeit a more costly one at something around $104 million.

These estimates are far from concrete, however, as since there are currently no commercial producers of aviation biofuel in the region, transport costs are almost a total unknown, Williams said.

Another study focused on financing this kind of infrastructure is due out sometime this spring, Creighton said.

The lack of a commercial biofuel producer also makes it hard to come up with a timeline for how soon such a project could come to fruition at Sea-Tac.

Alaska Airlines has set a goal of bringing commercial aviation biofuel to one of its airports by 2020, with a preference for Sea-Tac, said Carol Sim, director of environmental affairs for Alaska.

In 2011, the Seattle-based airline flew 75 flights on a blend of used cooking oil biofuel, and has since flown two more flights on biofuel variants -- one on a corn alcohol-based fuel and one on a “woody biomass” fuel, Sim said.

Alaska is in talks with several fuel producers now, with the hopes of striking a deal that will provide a consistent supply of aviation biofuel, Sim said.

“If it’s before 2020, that would be great,” she said. But more likely, it will take longer to get the project airborne at full-scale.

The Port will also take aim at integrating the biofuel infrastructure goals into the new Sustainable Airport Master plan, said Stephanie Meyn, climate protection program manager at the Port of Seattle.

Sea-Tac won’t be the first airport to use biofuel on a regular basis, as Los Angeles’ LAX already sends some amount of biofuel up in most flights, Meyn noted. In May, United Airlines began flying routes to San Francisco using a blended fuel with 30 percent biofuel, with the goal of eventually flying all its routes on biofuel blends.

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