Seeding a worthy industry
The victories have been many and substantial, beginning with congressional action that set a new, cleaner standard for the water we drink and the air we breathe.
The grassroots movement that gave birth to Earth Day also raised popular consciousness about the importance of conservation. Locally, tremendous strides have been made in recycling and other strategies for reducing waste.
Energy conservation is an ongoing success, too. Snohomish County PUD customers, for example, saved a record amount of energy last year through conservation, lowering their collective power bills by more than $6 million. The public utility, meanwhile, continues to be an international leader in the study and development of renewable energy sources.
Happily, so does one of our region's most important industries: aerospace. Two local giants, Boeing and Alaska Airlines, along with three major airports and Washington State University, are leading a groundbreaking initiative to create a viable aviation biofuels industry in the Northwest, using woody biomass feedstocks that are prevalent here.
Their motivation is both economic and environmental. Boeing and the airlines it serves know that to ensure their financial future, they must find ways to combat the volatility of fuel costs. They're also aware that as governments eye increasingly serious measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that speed climate change, they must take dramatic steps to reduce their carbon footprint.
These challenges also present an economic opportunity for Washington. With appropriate support from government and private sources, a significant growth industry, with thousands of good-paying jobs, could flower throughout the state.
Initial signs are encouraging. Following on a comprehensive study by Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest, the Legislature last month approved HB 2422, authorizing some bonding authority for biofuels projects. The bill, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, seeks to identify projects with the best chance of success, provide low-interest financing, and streamline the permit process for them.
Cultivating a strong aviation biofuels industry here makes sense not just because of Boeing and Alaska -- both of whom have recently demonstrated the successful use of biofuels on commercial flights -- but because of the region's heavy military presence. The Navy, for example, has a goal to cut its use of imported fuels in half by 2020.
As with any new industry, one of the barriers to making biofuels viable for aviation is affordability. Alaska paid about $17 a gallon for the 20 percent blend of cooking-oil-based biofuel it used for several flights recently.
That's why government has an essential role to play at the outset. As the industry matures, prices should come down. And as prices for petroleum-based fuel continue to rise long-term, biofuels will become more cost competitive.
The first seeds of such success are being planted. If they're well-tended, and government continues to provide support, the harvest could be huge -- for our region and our planet.