Airlines, state look at ways to make travel more green

LIHUE — A landmark flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Washington, D.C., has proven viability of yet another source for jet biofuel, and adding another option for the future of sustainable travel.

“We’re evaluating the locations we serve where we use a larger amount of fuel and looking at the viability of potential producers out there, hoping to get a commercial supply soon,” said Carol Sim, director of environmental affairs for Alaska Airlines.

She continued: “We’re evaluating options in Hawaii; I know that the state is supporting more clean transportation and 20 percent or more of our flying is to the islands now.”

Unfortunately, Lihue International Airport is far down the list of Hawaii airports because of its size.

The debut flight, which took place on Nov. 14, was powered using a 20 percent blend of alternative jet fuel made from forest residuals from the Pacific Northwest. That means they used leftover limbs, stumps and branches from timber harvest, according to Alaska Airlines.

The airline is one of several that are piloting projects in biofuel.

Extracting that fuel from lumber is the next option in sustainable biofuel, which has already undergone experiments using cooking oil and animal fats, as well as corn products to create fuel.

“There’s only four methods approved for making sustainable jet fuel at this time, but there’s no commercial supply available,” Sim said. “It’s in the development phase.”

That means suppliers are only making enough sustainable bio jet fuel to support demonstrations and to get certified.

“It’s been difficult for people attracting the necessary capital investments,” Sim said. “There’s needed additional infrastructure to blend traditional fuel and biofuel and it needs to be tested after blending to make sure it still meets fuel standards.”

The goal is to have a commercial supply into one of Alaska Airline’s main airports by 2020, which flows very well with the Hawaii Department of Transportation’s goal of using 100 percent renewable resources by 2045.

“I think as more changes occur on the Mainland, Hawaii becomes the next airport down the line,” said Ross Higashi, deputy director for the DOT airports division. “We’re looking at several different avenues to reduce our carbon footprint.”

The hang-up with fueling Hawaii-to-Mainland travel with biofuel is the need to have a fueling station, and a place to store the supply, in Hawaii.

“In Hawaii you have additional challenges of importing all your fuel,” Sim said. “(But) we’re optimistic.”

Cost could be a roadblock, according to Higashi, because currently jet fuel prices are relatively cheap.

“I spoke to our jet fuel supplier and biofuel would be more expensive,” Higashi said. “I know it’s great for the environment, but there needs to be an abundance of supply.”

Though sustainable biofuel for jets is something that’s still on the horizon, the airports division of DOT had made and continues to make changes that move the airports toward greener travel.

“We’re looking at ground service equipment that should be using biofuel,” Higashi said. “We’ve got two shuttle buses that are part of our Wikiwiki Bus Fleet that utilize biodiesel and we’re looking to use clean energy to power more buses.”

The idea is worth keeping in the forefront of the conversation, even though it may take some years before it becomes viable, as it would help the state further it’s clean energy goals, Higashi said.

“It does all fit into our whole goal of reducing our carbon footprint and leading by example, especially when it comes to sustainability,” said Tim Sakahara, spokesman for DOT. “If we lead by example, other companies will go that route as well.”

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