Snohomish County bets on revolutionizing aviation fuels

Snohomish County is betting that an investment on sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) will ensure the region’s aerospace tech industry remains rooted in the Pacific Northwest.

The airline industry has pledged to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. While hydrogen and electric-powered planes would drop emissions, many are preparing for a multipronged approach that includes sustainable aviation fuels.

However, experts believe that only 1% of the necessary fuel supply currently exists.

SAF is already in use in planes around the globe, but its price point is higher than traditional jet fuel. The current blends are also a low percentage of the fuel—no one is currently flying commercial with a 100% SAF.

Researchers around the globe are tinkering with new ideas in attempts to come up with SAF that acts like a traditional jet fuel, without the emissions. That means testing as a huge demand as people dump cash into potential fuel sources made of items ranging from sewage sludge, to timber even recycled cooking oil.

"We don’t have to choose between great jobs and a healthy planet," said Sen. Marko Liias, the State Senate Chair of the Transportation Committee.

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Sen. Liias noted that the plan at Paine Field would be funded in a budget proposal set to be released on Wednesday morning. For $6.5 million, Paine Field would receive a research and development (R&D) facility, and a first-of-its-kind repository.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers noted the importance of Paine Field and the aerospace industry, referencing $60 billion of economic impact and the 150,000-plus jobs linked to the site as a jet roared above, temporarily blocking out his speech.

"There it goes," he yelled over the plane, drawing an audible laugh.

The shift to SAF is happening quickly.

Dale Smith, a regional Boeing director focused on sustainability, was in the audience for Tuesday’s reveal. He told FOX 13 that Boeing is "all-in" on sustainable fuels, noting that they have committed to having all Boeing planes SAF-ready by 2030.

While Boeing is not directly involved in fuels, they have already begun the groundwork of a supply-chain centered on the fuel. They have been purchasing fuel from a group in California, which is used in a number of Boeing jets when delivered to clients around the globe.

"As a result, they’ve got more customers in the Puget Sound region," said Smith. "That’s how you develop a commercially viable market."

That market is important, because the cost will have to come down for SAF to be used more frequently. Which is exactly why the research facility is drawing so much attention.

Dr. Joshua Heyne, a WSU professor, is the linchpin to the entire plan that was announced on Tuesday. He has been working on SAF for years. He’ll spearhead the R&D lab in Everett once things are up and running.

Heyne was quick to point out, this is a facility that can have a global impact, noting in the past few weeks he’s been working and talking with colleagues in Ireland and Italy.

"[Washington State University] research has enabled the inception of global policies and new technologies to benefit state agricultural and industrial activities from Pullman to Everett," said Heyne.

It’s unclear how long it will take until the facility is up and running. According to a Snohomish County employee, the plan for building out the infrastructure should be complete by Sep. 2023, though Heyne said he hoped to begin some work before everything is finished.

The speed at which the space is moving is fast. Emily Wittman, the President of Aerospace Futures Alliance, told FOX 13 News that two SAF projects are already open in our state. Her group, which represents a number of aerospace businesses, called the acceleration of SAF tech "crucial."

While SAF can reduce carbon emissions, it doesn’t entirely erase them—meaning to get to carbon-neutral, you’d still need to invest in projects that remove carbon from the air to being truly net-zero.

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Those at Tuesday’s event at Paine Field were quick to highlight how this policy is crucial for the area’s fight against climate change.