Biofuel market gets a boost

GE commits to buy 5 million gallons a year. Will be used at the company’s jet engine testing facilities.

General Electric Co.’s commitment to buy 5 million gallons of biofuels annually, starting in January 2015, offers a guaranteed market that could prompt investment in Ohio’s alternative-fuels industry, advocates said.

That amounts to half of the 10 million gallons of conventional aviation fuel that GE Aviation currently consumes each year at its jet engine testing facilities in suburban Cincinnati and in Peebles, about 50 miles east of Cincinnati.

GE is a major global supplier of military and commercial jet engines.

The prospect of its steady appetite for biofuels could encourage investment and jobs growth in Ohio for crop growers, businesses that convert feedstocks to jet fuel, and fuel transporters, Ohio advocates said.

“I can’t tell you how significant that commitment would be,” said Mickey McCabe, who is the vice president for research at the University of Dayton.

McCabe’s research institute helps the Air Force test synthetic jet fuels at a test facility on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

“It’s going to really propel new development and processing opportunities.”

GE’s planned annual buy of biofuels would be a major boost in a country that currently produces about 10 million gallons of those fuels a year, McCabe said.

Biofuels advocates see Ohio’s legacy in the aerospace and agriculture businesses as foundations on which to build supply for GE and potential customers. The company wants to support Ohio businesses and hopes, in return, that they keep prices of biofuels as low as possible because the product won’t need to be transported long distances, said Steve Csonka, GE Aviation’s director of environmental strategy and ecoimagination.

“It’s our hope that our involvement does pull in parties who can have a significant contribution,” Csonka said.

“They (GE) decided that there’s a real economic development opportunity here. And I think there is,” said Donald Majcher, vice president for technology and innovation partnerships for the Ohio Aerospace Institute, which has an office near Wright-Patterson.

Ohio producers can grow crops and grasses including miscanthus, camelina, soy, switchgrass, pennycress and other feedstocks that provide oils for biofuel production.

The University of Dayton is among researchers trying to improve harvesting of oils from algae that can also be used to make biofuels.

The Ohio Aerospace Institute is working with state government, federal agencies, commercial airlines, universities and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation to organize what Majcher hopes will become a cooperative effort to produce and sell Ohio biofuels. GE expects that its plan to buy 5 million gallons of biofuel annually will continue for some time, Csonka said.

When mixed 50-50 with traditional jet fuel, it can power traditional jet engines.

Biofuels can burn more cleanly, reducing the carbon emissions of the engines.

The Air Force, a major user of aviation fuel, wants to develop and improve biofuels to reduce supply dependence on oil-rich nations that may be unfriendly to the United States.

On June 27, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Cincinnati to discuss the Agriculture Department’s collaboration with GE Aviation, Ohio Aerospace Institute, airlines and biofuels producers to provide renewable-sources fuels for GE’s engine test facilities.

On July 2, the Navy and the departments of agriculture and energy announced they will make $30 million in federal funding available to match private investments in biofuels development and production technologies. The Energy Department said it has an additional $32 million available to encourage early-stage research by industry to develop biofuels and reduce costs.