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United Airlines Invests in Biofuel Refinery

United Airlines Ventures has announced a $35 million investment in NEXT, a renewable energy firm developing a biofuel refinery in Oregon

by Fergus Cole

November 16, 2022

Photo: Courtesy of Christian Lambert / Unsplash

United Airlines has announced a $35 million investment into developing a biofuel refinery, becoming the first U.S.-based airline to make such a move.

According to an announcement by United Airlines Ventures (UAV), the Chicago-based carrier is investing strategically in NEXT Renewable Fuels (NEXT). 

NEXT is a clean energy production company currently overseeing the development of its flagship biofuel refinery in Port Westward, Oregon.

A rendering of the proposed biofuels refinery at the Port Westward. Courtesy of NEXT Renewables.

The Houston-based firm expects production to begin at the facility in 2026, with a capacity to produce up to 50,000 barrels of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), renewable diesel, and other renewable fuels daily. The announcement from UAV suggests that United is prepared to invest up to $37.5 million into the renewable energy company as long as certain conditions are met.

United has often said that one of its long-term goals is to offer sustainable flying. However, the limited supply, relatively high cost of renewables, and a lack of proper infrastructure have hindered the company’s efforts to go green.

“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,” said Michael Leskinen, President of United Airlines Ventures. “But NEXT’s strategic location and assets solve that problem and provide a blueprint for future facilities that need to be built.

Leskinen added that he and his team “believe this investment will not only bolster NEXT’s ambitions and create near-term solutions to expand its SAF supply, but further demonstrates our commitment toward producing SAF at the scale necessary to decarbonize the aviation industry.”

There are many potential benefits that the Oregon biofuel refinery currently under development can offer to investors, including access to a deep-water port and an existing industrial-grade dock. At the same time, NEXT has also secured access to feedstock options and growing SAF markets on the West Coast. 

Photo: Courtesy of Chris Leipelt / Unsplash

The firm has an agreement with energy giant BP to source 100% of its feedstock, while it has also secured an air permit from the State of Oregon, which will allow for greater biofuel shipment out of the refinery.

Christopher Efird, CEO, and Chairperson of NEXT was keen to share his excitement over what United’s investment could mean for the renewable industry. “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,” he said.

“United’s investment in NEXT strengthens our resolve to be one of the clean fuels leaders in the transportation sector.”

This is not the first time that UAV has invested in renewable energy technology. The ventures fund— launched in 2021—looks for clean energy startups and emerging technologies to invest in to achieve United’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

United also launched the Eco-Skies Alliance in April 2021, which involves many other global corporations and contributed to purchasing over seven million gallons of SAF in 2021 alone. United is a global leader in the aviation industry regarding renewable energy, having invested more in SAF production than any other airline.