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Planet808: Renewable Jet Fuel Made in Hawai‘i?

Brian Vallelunga/cc commons
What will it take for a tourism economy in the middle of the Pacific to be carbon neutral? Tackling carbon emissions from jet fuel has got to be part of the equation.

Hawai‘i’s green energy goals are among the most ambitious in the nation, and other states are closely watching our progress. Hawai‘i’s stated goal is 100 percent renewable energy generation by 2045, an ambitious target that requires tackling the problem of airline fuel. Nearly a third of the petroleum consumed in Hawai‘i is for jet fuel. In this edition of Planet808, HPR visits this past week’s Hawai‘i Aviation and Climate Action Summit.

Noelani Brennan
Credit Noelani Brennan
Joelle Simonpietri, former senior military analyst and Operational Manager of the U.S. Pacific Command's Green Initiative for Fuels Transition Pacific. Currently owner of Simonpietri Enterprises, a sustainability consulting company. One of her projects involves a potential solid waste to jet fuel project on O'ahu.
Broader view of the aviation industry's move toward sustainability and how Hawai'i might contribute to those efforts

Ten million tourists a year and every single one travels at least 4 thousand miles, if they go back home. It’s no wonder that 1/3 of all petroleum consumed in the state is for jet fuel.

“There’s a direct correlation between jet fuel prices and the cost of an airline ticket to Hawai‘i,” says Joelle Simonpietri is the convener of the Hawai‘i Aviation and Climate Action Summit.

“There’s a direct correlation between airline tickets and visitor arrivals. Alternative sources of aviation fuel can actually be a way to protect Hawai‘i as a visitor destination.”  

Simonpietri’s a former senior military advisor, former Operational Manager of GIFTPAC--the military’s Green Initiative for Fuels Transition Pacific, that’s what led to her current efforts in renewable fuels. She owns Simonpietri Enterprises, a small sustainability consulting firm that is exploring alternative aviation fuels in Hawai‘i, and civilian airlines are paying attention.

According to Simonpietri, very large corporate customers are demanding better environmental performance. She says financial services firms, consulting firms, and others have corporate sustainability goals that are part of the CFO’s performance rating. In a recent development, airlines chosen for annual corporate contracts must also meet sustainability criteria. According to Simonpietri, these transitions are similar to those the insurance industry went through when they began pricing in sea level rise and climate change ten years ago.

2020 marks the year that airlines including Hawaiian, United, Southwest and Alaska, are instituting a voluntary carbon cap to 2019 levels. All four airlines were at this week's conference. There are three major ways Hawai‘i can help airlines meet their climate mandates, this is what they’re looking for: improved airport efficiencies, carbon offsets, and sustainable fuels.

According to Simonpietri, Hawai‘i could be among the first, and certainly the first island, to offer a sustainable fuel supply.

What to make that fuel out of? Michael Wolcott, Regents professor at Washington State University, is Director of Ascent, the FAA Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels and Environment-- he says renewable fuels need to be cost effective to compete.

“We have all kinds of products that we’ve used once already and is now a waste product and is now a liability to society in some way shape or form. Forest residuals are one of those. But there are others, like municipal solid waste is an area that’s going forward now. Probably the next alternative jet fuel plant in the United States will be operating on municipal solid waste.”

According to Simonpietri, a fuel processing center using municipal waste is set to open in Nevada in 2020-21 and another is set to open in Oregon using wood as a feedstock. Most fuels are approved by the American Society for Testing and Materials up to a 50% blend with petroleum, though initially the percentages will be much lower. 

Simonpietri’s research has convinced her that O‘ahu could produce ten million gallons of jet fuel a year by converting construction and demolition debris.  That’s the minimum scale necessary for a viable commercial facility. 

Simonpietri says O‘ahu produces 5-700 tons of construction/demolition debris a day, much of it treated lumber, that cannot be burned by HPower. Processes to utilize treated lumber are under development here now, but Simonpietri says other than that, technical problems of producing energy from lumber are largely solved---Alaska Airlines flew a passenger flight with 20% wood derived fuel in 2016.  

“Right now we have zero renewable fuel production on O‘ahu. Let’s get north of zero,” says Simonpietri. “With the construction and demolition debris and the wood from that alone, we could displace ten million gallons a year of petroleum with that renewable fuel.”

Simonpietri is currently in the scoping phase for a possible construction debris-to-fuel operation on O‘ahu. Four major airlines showed up this week to say carbon cutting mandates have them looking for alternative fuels. Could Hawai‘i be a leader in developing them?

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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