July 28, 2023 [Medium]- Airplanes are thirsty. The Boeing 737 MAX guzzles a gallon of jet fuel every five seconds. For every gallon burned, a cloud of noxious exhaust is left behind.
If airplanes could be put on a cleaner diet, their enormous emissions might be curtailed. The solution is sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). It’s real. It works with existing aircraft. And soon, Washington state is going to produce a whole lot of it.
Imagine if Superman could use kryptonite to his advantage. That’s something like what a startup called Twelve intends to do: take something evil and do good with it.
In this case, carbon dioxide is the evil. It’s clouding our atmosphere. It’s coloring our oceans. It’s cooking our planet.
Twelve has a method to extract CO2 from industrial byproducts to make a cleaner jet fuel. Twelve’s fuel is cleaner to produce and cleaner-burning than conventional fuel, emitting just 5% as much CO2. The company broke ground in Moses Lake recently on a facility to manufacture it.
“In just a matter of months, we’ll be closer to our goal of enabling a world made from air,” said Twelve CEO Nicholas Flanders. “That’ll be when the first Alaska Airlines flights take off powered by E-Jet, made here at this plant.”
At first, Twelve aims to produce about 40,000 gallons of SAF annually. Down the line, they intend to scale up and deliver one million gallons a year.
U.S. airlines consumed over 15 billion gallons of jet fuel last year, and SAF accounted for only a fraction of one percent of that total. SAF shows promise, but nobody’s making much of it. Yet.
Scaling SAF is a trillion-dollar economic opportunity. Washington state is getting an early bite at the apple by nurturing early production.
In May, Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation sponsored by Sen. Andy Billing to attract SAF production to Washington state and a separate bill to accelerate permitting for clean energy projects. Their passage was lauded by labor, the media, and the aviation industry as a win for Washington’s economy and the world’s climate.
Just two weeks after the signing, SkyNRG announced plans to build an $800 million sustainable aviation fuel production facility in Washington. The plant’s construction will create 600 jobs, and its operation will yield about 100 permanent jobs and 30 million gallons of SAF each year.
“This is what we hoped would happen,” said Billig. “It’s rewarding to see this bill pay dividends for the state so quickly.”
This is just the start, according to officials from the state Department of Commerce. Since the passage of SB 5447 and the state’s splashy appearance at the Paris Air Show, the department has received more calls than ever from fuel producers eager to do business in Washington state.
“SkyNRG is the big one, but we’re getting a lot of calls from producers ready to get into specifics,” said Robin Toth, Commerce’s sector lead for aerospace. “The phone is ringing.”
“Just last week, a foreign company reached out directly to inquire about what would be their first expansion into the U.S.,” said Radi Simeonova, Commerce’s director of business recruitment. “They reached out because of the incentive, the activity they’ve seen in Washington state, and our low-cost renewable power.”
The federal government and the aviation industry intend to hit net-zero emissions by 2050. They’ll need more SAF to do it.
In 2021, President Joe Biden announced a SAF tax credit and launched the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge to inspire dramatic increases in domestic production by 2030.
Washington-based Alaska Airlines has inked partnerships with Shell Aviation to expand SAF production in the Pacific Northwest. They’ve also partnered with Twelve to become an early adopter of their E-Jet fuel.
Scaling up is essential so that SAF pencils out for airlines. Fuel expenditures account for nearly a third of airlines’ total costs, and SAF currently commands a premium for now. But Alaska Airlines and other forward-thinking firms know that SAF is the future, and that scaling SAF production now will lead to cost advantages soon.
“We have a goal to be carbon-neutral by 2040, and we’d like to be using 10 percent SAF by 2030,” says Alaska’s vice president of supply chain Ann Ardizzone. “But if you’re buying SAF today for two, three, or four times the cost of Jet-A, it’s pretty quick arithmetic to figure out that doesn’t work.”
“So we need investments like this, new technology that I know Twelve can bring about, to make SAF more affordable and available.”
Cleared for takeoff
Fortunately, the only chocks holding back SAF lie in production. Otherwise, it’s cleared for takeoff.
“Everything downstream is exactly the same as existing fuels and materials. We don’t have to change anything,” said Kendra Kuhl, Twelve’s chief technology officer.
Many SAF varieties can be blended with conventional fuel and burned by standard engines with no need for adaptation. Current planes can fly cleaner just as soon as they are pumped full of SAF.
“The fuel would flow through the supply chain in a business-as-usual model via pipeline to terminals and/or airports,” reads a report on SAF from the U.S. Department of Energy. “There would be no change to airport fuel operations as the investment and blending would occur upstream at a fuel terminal.”
While electric aircraft and hydrogen-powered passenger aircraft have also taken flight in Washington, SAF is thought to be the most promising technology to decarbonize aviation. Electric aircraft require heavy batteries. Hydrogen-powered aircraft require new engines that are still under development. SAF is ready to fly — now.
The new Kitty Hawk
There is cause for urgency in the effort to decarbonize air travel. Unbridled emissions are causing searing effects worldwide. Draughts and deluges, fires and floods — the consequences of human activity are plain.
“What the scientific community is telling us now is that the Earth is screaming at us,” says Gov. Jay Inslee.
But combatting climate change does not require that industry be extinguished. Rather, industry must be reinvented. That reinvention poses boundless opportunity for Washington state.
Fortunately, creativity abounds here. Progressive legislation is attracting new business. Scientific genius is leading to new breakthroughs. Industry is building new factories for batteries and cleaner fuels.
“I could not be more thrilled,” says Inslee. “It’s like sort of being at Kitty Hawk back in the day with the Wright brothers. That’s the level of innovation folks are doing right here in Washington.”
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