The Wayne County Airport Authority is the operator of the Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the Willow Run Airport, and everyday each airport uses more than 1 million gallons of fuel in planes and ground equipment. Through collaboration with Michigan State University’s Extension office, those 1 million-plus gallons could someday be produced renewably on the airport’s premises. “How does aviation protect itself in the future against the depletion of fossil fuels and the uncertainty of foreign sources of energy?” asked Genelle Allen, interim CEO of the WCAA. Allen’s answer: “grow it.”
The collaboration is part of the larger AgriEnergy Technology Demonstration project funded by a $476,000 grant given by the Michigan Energy Office of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. While the WCAA will only lease three acres of airport land to MSU, the grant money will also go to other bioenergy-specific sites that are not currently used, such as vacant urban lots or highway right-of-ways. “WCAA has been interested in exploring the potential of developing airport-owned property around both airports for bionergy production for some time,” Allen said. “If successful, this project could attract businesses to the vicinity of the airports that would produce alternative fuels for use in aircraft and other vehicles,” adding that this project may not only bring economic development to Michigan, “but also protect land around our airports from further encroachment.”
In total, the two airports in the project have potentially 1,700 acres suitable for planting. The energy crops that will be used in the project are canola and mustard seed, with MSU responsible for the management of the energy crop tracks, and the WCAA giving access to the land.
As a testament to the support and significance of the project, a group of stakeholders made up of aircraft, biodiesel and other local business representatives first met in January to promote the use of renewable jet fuel and biodiesel. Members of the group range from representatives from Delta Air Lines to the USDA to Synergy Consulting.
Dennis Pennington, MSU extension project manager, said of the grant and the project that it “provides Michigan an opportunity to transition into the green sector with the potential to reduce our dependence on foreign oil imports,” and for the state of Michigan, more importantly, to “create needed jobs.”
Robert Ficano, a Wayne County executive, noted that two separate development firms, the Wayne County EDGE and Aerotropolis Development Corp., both “identified alternative energy and nonfossil fuels as a growth sector for our area,” a project he also said could help the region be at the forefront on an “exciting, emerging technology.”
Because of the number of gallons used at the airports participating in the projects, Rich Altman, executive director for Washington D.C.-based Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, said the project is both “prudent and practical for WCAA to explore alternative means such as biofuels.”
The project will run through February 2012.