Southwest to power some flights with biofuels

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 26, 2014

Southwest Airlines Co. announced plans yesterday to use plant-based jet fuel to power some flights.

Southwest, the largest carrier in the United States based on the number of originating domestic passengers, said it signed an agreement with Red Rock Biofuels LLC to purchase 3 million gallons of renewable jet fuel per year starting in 2016. Red Rock is planning to convert forest residues into renewable jet fuel and diesel out of a Colorado facility using a gasification process.

In a statement, the airline said using biofuel from forest residues would reduce its carbon footprint and lower the risk of wildfires.

“Our commitment to sustainability and efficient operations led us on a search for a viable biofuel that uses a sustainable feedstock with a high rate of success,” Bill Tiffany, vice president of supply chain at Southwest Airlines, said in the statement. “Red Rock Biofuels’ technology, economics, and approved use made entering into an agreement for purchase a win-win situation.”

Dallas-based Southwest said it plans to use the biofuel at flights leaving from the Southwest Bay Area. The 3 million gallons represents just a small portion of the airline’s total fuel use; in its most recent annual report, Southwest said it expected to consume 1.8 billion gallons of fuel in 2014.

Southwest is a member of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a joint program of commercial airlines, government agencies and energy producers. Airlines have been motivated to seek alternative fuels by volatile petroleum jet fuel prices and growing calls to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions.

Southwest’s jet fuel purchases in 2012 and 2013 represented 37 and 35 percent, respectively, of its total operating expenses, according to the company’s latest annual report. In that report, Southwest said it had limited its growth partly because of growing jet fuel costs.

Southwest called Red Rock the “first viable opportunity” it has found to power part of its fleet with biofuels and meet financial and sustainability objectives.

This is the second announced contract for Red Rock in a week. Red Rock last Thursday received $70 million from the departments of Defense, Energy and Agriculture in an initiative to supply the military with advanced biofuels. The departments signed a contract with Red Rock for it to provide 12 million gallons a year of biofuels from woody biomass, also beginning in 2016.

“From the outset, we have sought to build the best possible team of project partners,” Red Rock CEO Terry Kulesa said in the statement yesterday. “A conversation we started with Southwest on the premise of providing renewable jet fuel at cost parity with conventional jet fuel has evolved into a great partnership.”