Flying High on Advanced Biofuels!

As it helped build the airline industry, government should also assist advanced biofuels development
By Michael McAdams | November 21, 2011

As I write to you, I am witnessing history at 40,000 feet above the U.S., a rare privilege, as one of the first commercial passengers on board the Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Washington, D.C. It is the first cross-country flight and one of two commercial flights in the U.S. to utilize renewable jet fuels. 

When you consider that Congress only passed in 2007 the renewable fuel standard legislation calling for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels, it is an amazing accomplishment for an industry in its infancy to actually fly a plane less than four years after legislation was signed into law by President George W. Bush. So, as I sit here gazing across the horizon at a spectacular sunset, I have to wonder if all this would even be possible if lawmakers in Washington had not helped in expediting the deployment of the innovative technologies powering this Boeing 737-800. I think we all know the answer.

As the super committee struggles to find a compromise on the reduction of the federal budget to the tune of $1.5 trillion over 10 years, many of the clean energy efforts by the federal government to support and expedite their commercial deployment are on the chopping block. Some in Congress would like to withdraw all federal dollars invested in clean energy. They have latched upon the failed loan guarantee of a California solar company as the justification to end all efforts in this area. But let’s put this into context, as Congressman Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., said to me recently, we spend more each day in Iraq than the loss incurred by the solar company loan.

It makes you want to scratch your head after reading all the sensational headlines, but unfortunately, this effort to throw the baby out with the bath water is only getting worse. In November, The Washington Post released a new poll showing support for alternative energy is slipping. The paper asked: When it comes to developing new energy technology, do you think government is necessary; or will business produce the technology we need without government investment? In 2009 the split was 58 percent to 32 percent in favor of government support. In today’s polling, the number has slipped to 52 percent to 39 percent in favor of government support. When asked do you favor government policies for more subsidies for ethanol, 48 percent responding opposed and 38 percent supported. Not helpful to the advanced and cellulosic sectors, especially as we enter what is known in Washington as “funny season,” or the presidential election year.

Now here’s what’s even more frustrating; the poll also finds a developing partisan divide with Democrats more closely aligned with alternative energy and Republicans with increased government engagement to open on- and offshore drilling and mining. As an industry, we cannot fail to familiarize conservative candidates with the benefits of advanced biofuels and the promise we have already started delivering on by creating new jobs, reducing foreign oil consumption, strengthening our economic and national security. This is not a partisan issue; this is an issue of whether we deploy innovative technology for America and has nothing to do with whether you are Democrat or Republican. 

So as I’m talking to other passengers aboard this historic flight, I’m hearing questions like those from Suzi Arndt, a farmer from Edwall, Wash., and Irene Padilla, a librarian for the state of Maryland, who both asked me how much the fuel cost versus regular fuel, and how much is available. I acknowledged the fuel may be more expensive today because it’s the first of its kind. In order to bring down the cost of the new fuels, we need to build a strong demand for advanced renewable fuels that require the scale-up of significant gallons.

That is the way markets work. In fact, I told them that is actually how the U.S. government helped build the airline industry of today. Following the invention of the airplane by the Wright brothers, England began to perfect the manufacture of airplanes for the purpose of national defense. America followed that lead by building airplanes for defense purposes, and the U.S. Postal Service entered the market for aircraft to fly postage back and forth across the country. This created a viable demand for the planes and led to the financing of scalable, affordable aircraft.

I concluded that the same needs to happen with advanced renewable fuels. Both my fellow passengers smiled and said that seemed to make sense. And that, my friends, is the message we need to remind all Americans, specifically those politicians who now believe the government should leave everything to the free market. 

We have much to gain from clean renewable advanced biofuel—jobs, energy diversity, environmental sustainability and national security. With the current economically challenging environment, only with continued government support will we expedite the use of these fuels in commercial flights, and ultimately be the catalyst for change around the world.

Author: Michael McAdams
President, Advanced Biofuels Association
(202) 469-5140