Comment: Innovation, policy join to slash air travel pollution

Technology, aided by legislation, is quickly developing far cleaner fuels to carry air travel into the future.

By Jay Inslee and Fred Krupp / For The Herald

If the air travel industry were a country, its emissions would rank behind only six other nations; and airlines are planning to add tens of thousands of new planes in the next two decades. That makes cleaner flying an indispensable step toward a safe and stable future.

Washington state, long an aviation leader and a high-tech hub, is showing how to get it done with sustainable aviation fuels.

The challenge is that not all “sustainable aviation fuels” are actually sustainable. Some don’t really reduce pollution, some drive deforestation and other harms. That means finding the right solutions will be one of the great scientific and policy wins of the 21st century.

The good news is cleaner fuels can be produced from a variety of sources, including used cooking oil or forestry residues, or in the case of synthetic e-fuels, made from renewable electricity, water and carbon dioxide. With the right incentives, innovators and entrepreneurs are well positioned to solve this challenge.

In central Washington, a startup called Twelve plans to start manufacturing e-fuels at its Moses Lake plant, which will be produced by capturing carbon dioxide from organic matter that would otherwise be wasted. Alaska Airlines will soon offer flights powered by Twelve’s e-fuel — which features a roughly 90 percent lower carbon footprint — and Microsoft will begin booking business travelers on these flights powered by Twelve’s e-fuel. Last year a 40-passenger regional airliner took off from Everett’s Paine Field equipped with a revolutionary hydrogen fuel-cell engine created by Universal Hydrogen.

This April, with support from the state Department of Commerce, a company called ZeroAvia, with a facillty in Everett, opened a remarkable new manufacturing facility for hydrogen-powered drivetrains. At the same airfield where it conducted its test flight, ZeroAvia is creating new aerospace jobs as it develops a cutting-edge electric propulsion system that generates electricity from hydrogen fuel. The new engines will be retrofitted into a Dash 76-seater to create the world’s largest zero-emission, hydrogen-powered aircraft.

These kinds of breakthrough investments can happen when policy makers work across party lines — and collaborate with scientists, labor and industry — to help innovators thrive. Building on strong policy incentives in the state Clean Fuel Standard, last year the Washington Legislature adopted new tax incentives to encourage businesses to invest in sustainable fuels and streamlined the permitting process for clean-energy projects. Lawmakers also created a sustainable aviation fuel research and development center at Paine Field that is forging partnerships across the world.

This kind of leadership is sparking renewed interest in Washington state from aviation fuel innovators around the world. It’s no accident that just days after these laws were passed, the Dutch firm SkyNRG announced it would build a new $800 million sustainable aviation refinery in the state, one that will produce 30 million gallons of clean fuel a year, create hundreds of jobs and bring major investments to the local economy.

Washington state’s ambitious innovations can, and should, go hand-in-hand with those in Washington D.C., where policymakers have just issued guidance this week on how to award game-changing tax credits created as part of President Biden’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

To qualify for taxpayer support, fuels should meet rigorous environmental and labor standards, giving promising new technologies — like those being developed in Washington — a chance to scale up and drive the market toward cleaner, more innovative fuels. Now is the time to support high-integrity fuels that reduce pollution and avoid driving deforestation and food price increases.

The climate clock is ticking, but there’s still a chance for cleaner aviation fuels to make a big difference. With the right blend of policy leadership and private sector innovations, the airstrips at Moses Lake and Paine Field will become our new Kitty Hawk, opening the door to a new generation of unimagined opportunities and charting Washington’s course to a position of world-class leadership.

Jay Inslee is the governor of Washington. Fred Krupp is president of the Environmental Defense Fund, a national nonprofit environmental advocacy group.

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