United Airlines Commits Up to $37.5M to Biofuel Refinery

 - November 15, 2022, 10:04 AM
United Airlines' Eco-Skies Alliance program counts 30 corporate participants that have collectively purchased more than 7 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel. (Photo: United Airlines)

United Airlines’ venture capital unit said on Tuesday it will invest as much as $37.5 million in the development of the largest clean fuel production facility, making it the first U.S. airline to commit to funding a biofuel refinery.

United Airlines Ventures’ (UAV) investment in Houston-based Next Renewable Fuels will support a so-called flagship biofuel refinery in Port Westward, Oregon, production at which Next expects to begin in 2026. Next expects the biorefinery to produce up to 50,000 barrels per day of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), renewable diesel, and other renewable fuels.

“Right now, one of the biggest barriers to increasing supply and lowering costs of sustainable fuel is that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to transport it efficiently, but Next’s strategic location and assets solve that problem and provide a blueprint for future facilities that need to be built,” said United Airlines Ventures president Michael Leskinen. “We believe this investment will not only bolster Next’s ambitions and create near-term solutions to expand our SAF supply, but further demonstrates our commitment toward producing SAF at the scale necessary to decarbonize the aviation industry.”

Next’s biorefinery benefits from access to a deep-water port, an existing industrial-grade dock, and multi-modal logistics options, allowing for access to feedstock options and fast-growth SAF offtake markets on the West Coast. Next has secured an agreement with BP for sourcing 100 percent of its feedstock, further de-risking supply challenges smaller facilities have historically faced. Next also has received what it calls a crucial air permit from the state of Oregon. Once Next obtains all the needed approvals and permits and begins to operate the biorefinery, it can use it as a platform to scale SAF and deploy additional future technologies.

“The clean fuels industry is taking off and our access to feedstocks, multi-modal distribution, and major industry players positions us to be a leading SAF supplier on the West Coast,” said Next CEO and chairman Christopher Efird. “United’s investment in Next strengthens our resolve to be one of the clean fuels leaders in the transportation sector.”

Tuesday’s announcement marks UAV’s fifth SAF-related technology investment, and its first investment directly in a biorefinery. Launched in 2021, UAV supports startups, technologies, and concepts meant to complement United's goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, without relying on traditional carbon offsets such as voluntary offsets or planting trees. UAV’s portfolio includes SAF producers and companies advancing technologies including carbon use, hydrogen-electric engines, electric regional aircraft, and air taxis.