Aviation Biofuels, Leading the Way to a New Global Economy

If you are wondering what our future holds with an economy subjected to political gridlock, an overview of an emerging industry called aviation biofuels could offer some interesting insights. 

Airlines today operate on razor thin profit margins with an industry average of less than one half of one percent, largely due to soaring fuel prices that gobble up about 30% of ticket revenues. Many factors are to blame and ultimately the traveling consumer is unwilling or unable to pay the higher ticket prices airlines need to offset their mounting losses. Merger mania among top airlines has played itself out leaving fewer options on the table.  Aside from shaving off more capacity than they have already, airlines are looking elsewhere to stay in business. One area that remains unexplored is the diversification from a one fuel source model to multiple fuel sources, which would include biofuels.

At a recent Aviation Biofuels Development Conference in Washington DC organized by FC Business Intelligence based out of London, thought-leaders, investors, government officials, and private sector industry leaders spent two days evaluating the growing prospects of aviation biofuels. So nascent is this industry that not even the US Government had a handle on its realistic potential and implications. However much they differed in their respective opinions, conference participants did agree on the pressing need to stabilized jet fuel prices through the production of alternative jet fuels. Their target production for 2015 was 600 million gallons per year, which amounts to a mere fraction of the 36 billion gallons per year mandated by Congress for ground transportation fuel blending. What impressed me most between the many animated discussions was the underlying dynamics among so many capable players that for whatever their reasons had been thrust together into the uncharted territory of aviation biofuels.

By the second day, the conference reminded me of the knocking sounds of an engine running with the wrong type of fuel. Was it the engine design or the fuel mismatch that was at fault? …and then it occurred to me. It was neither.  The aviation business model, which in my example would represent the engine, was being forced to change its fuel sourcing strategy from a single fuel pathway (from ground to gas pump) to multiple fuel pathways. Both the engine in my example and the fuel type were up for a complete redesign and eventual realignment, hence the ‘knocking’ sounds.

To appreciate the tectonic impact from a transition to multiple fuel pathways, imagine for a moment what life would be like if every home in the US had its own oil well and processing plant in its ‘backyard’ that could easily produce optimal grade fuel at a price well below today’s market price. “That scenario is absolutely ridiculous!”, you might say under your breath.  …and yet, the emerging aviation biofuels industry speaks directly to this end.

Instead of purchasing fuel from traditional fuel brokers, airports are planning to produce their own fuel at a lower and more stable price using feedstocks and a processing facility located adjacent to the airport’s existing storage tanks. Under this arrangement, airlines would no longer be subjected to volatile energy prices caused, for example, by a political event in the Middle East. Also, by positioning biofuels production facilities in their ‘backyard’, airports can eliminate shipping and port handling costs. Once more, if airports succeed in producing their own fuel source, what would prevent industrial parks around the world to do the same?

The resounding significance from producing fuel at the point of consumption will give both companies as well as groups of companies a far greater and sustainable edge over their competitors.  Just how an energy-decentralized economy will play out in the end will be anyone’s guess.  One thing is for sure. The base of wealth and power both politically and economically will shift significantly.

Considering this new perspective, one can better understand the industry’s current frustrations. On the one hand the US Government is hesitating with its renewable energy strategies not knowing if an untested policy might eliminate entire industries (i.e. fuel transportation), reduce existing business tax revenue streams, and increase unemployment. In the meantime, the DOE (Department of Energy) continues to invest in biofuels R&D and to develop incentives for private investors willing to scale biofuel productions.

The progress in the aviation biofuels industry can be measured by the rapidly growing number of fuel-production pathways.  In fact there may be too many pathways and efforts are underway to standardize a comprehensive evaluation process. Also in play are efforts to improve efficiencies within each pathway such as increasing the energy yield per acre of feedstock. But despite all of these efforts, the price of biofuels per gallon remains well above that of most conventional fuels.

With Republicans unwilling to pay more for energy than the lowest cost fuels available, the future of biofuels remains potentially entangled in a political gridlock. However, as the real threat to the airline industry continues to grow, aviation biofuels may force opposing members of Congress to reconsider their positions.  If and when they do, the production of aviation biofuels may unintentionally trigger the decoupling of crude oil prices globally. When that day arrives, businesses will learn to compete not only on price, but also on their respective ready access to ‘backyard’ biofuels energy.

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Appendix – Conference Overview
The conference organizers did an excellent job of presenting an interactive forum that offered new pathways from the traditional one-pathway strategy discussed in the article.  This section was written for readers with an advanced background in the industry.  New interconnected pathways discussed included:

Investment Strategies, presented by Baker & McKenzie (bakermckenzie.com), focused on parsing project risk into tradable financial instruments to attract diverse groups of investors. For example, project assets would be pledged to a lender using a Special Purpose Vehicle or SPV. The DOE (Department of Energy – energy.gov) spoke of Master Limited Partnerships (MLP’s) where project assets can be assigned to an LLC, tax free, and later IPO’ed to raise cash to finance newer projects.  They are also working on redefining the definition of REIT’s to include biofuels investments.  These changes will qualify more investment funds including foundations and make it easier for private sector participation.

Fuel Processing, presented by GEVO (gevo.com), compared the differences between processing techniques using biology (i.e. enzymes) or chemicals (i.e. catalyst). Their catalyst category included a clever building block platform of iso-butanol a C-4 carbon molecule that like lego pieces can combined to produce not only ethanol but also other lucrative chemicals (i.e. C-8 for gas and C-16 for diesel). As demand shifts for each chemical, the plants daily production can be calibrated to optimize profits. Another company, Byogy Renewables (byogy.com), also a chemical processing company has developed technology to extract 80% of oxygen content in biomass to produce a 100% replacement to jet fuel (no blending required). They are currently partnered with Qatar Airlines.

Feedstock, presented by Paradigm Energies (paradigmbioaviation.com), reminded us that feedstocks or the raw materials used to process biofuels represents 80% of the cost of the biofuel produced. However, in the case of corn ethanol, for example, one of its byproducts can be sold for animal feed at a price close to the corn itself, hence, creating an offset revenue.

Paradigm Energies is in the waste-to-energy business. They source municipal landfills, ‘garbage’, for feedstock and supply a clean jet fuel called syngas that can be liquefied for blending or used to produce electricity. Cities are willingly pay a ‘tipping fee’ to have their waste removed, since landfills are unsightly and expensive to manage. The overall benefits to a city from a social and economic point of view are noteworthy, while the ‘tipping fees’ offer an offset revenue similar to corn. Potentially perceived as a ‘dirty business’, operators of similar waste-to-fuel schemes are mindful of potential negative public opinion for eliminating trash removal jobs, rezoning landfill areas, and other eventualities such as a plane accident that involves the use of a blended biofuel produced from ‘garbage’.

Another company, Solena Fuels (solenafuels.com) is building waste-to-garbage plants adjacent to city refineries in the UK. Cities with a population greater than 1.5 and 2 million can produce the 700,000 tons of garbage needed to operate one of their processing plants. One of its partners, British Airways, has recently placed an order for 5 plants to meet 2% of its annual fuel consumption.

Patents presented by Boeing (boeing.com) has become big business for this conglomerate. In the interest of helping its customers buy more airplanes, Boeing is actively redesigning its engines in an effort to move away from a one fuel model. They see their role as a catalyst to accelerate commercialization of biofuels and are aggressively taking a stake in new IP’s produced. The company uses its brand and influence to advocate policies and other related matters.

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Recycling the Debate of Sustainability

What is sustainability? Is it a personal commitment to save the planet or just another opportunity to charge higher prices?  No one really knows.  When you think of the need for sustainability you might envision countries at war over water rights or abandoned vehicles along highways due to gas shortages.  These ominous images are not fantasy but possible realities, unless we, as a planet, can figure out how to curtail the depletion of our natural resources. Who should be in charge of such an undertaking and what can they do, if anything, to help reverse the inevitable? 

Sustainability is a very complex subject.  It is a byproduct of a long chain of technological advancements that over time have created the problem we face today, namely, the production of cheaper products.  As the global population balloons so too does the demand for our limited resources needed to produce these products.  It is only a matter of time before key resources such as iron ore, petroleum, or phosphates (used for fertilizers) are 100% depleted.  Higher prices help fuel additional exploration into harder-to-find deposits, but sooner than later, those new discoveries will get consumed as well.  Perhaps, what is needed is a comprehensive international sustainability plan that buys time to develop substitutes or alternative solutions.  In my quest to gain a deeper perspective, I recently attended three sustainability conferences.  What I discovered may surprise you.

Conference #1 – Sustainability
My first conference was at MIT’s 4th Annual Sustainability Summit (www.stabilitysummit.mit.edu).  Experts, thought-leaders, and entrepreneurs traveled from as far away as South Africa to compare and exchange ideas. Their animated presence gave credence to the dire urgency for a global mandate among our leaders.   The wide range of ideas and opinions that emerged from the Summit sounded hopeful, but also left one wondering, if a solution to such a large problem was even plausible.  I left with a list of nagging questions such as, who should be responsible for implementing sustainability programs, what steps would be taken to monitor progress, and how realistically ‘sustainable’ would these ideas stand on their own for years to come.  I felt as though our society had reached a turning point between progress and preservation, the same way a sailboat feels while turning into the wind to change its course.

Ironically, the same technological innovations (some of which originated at MIT) that helped make our natural resources readily available to the masses is being called upon to prevent its potential demise.  For now, at least, experts are focusing on remedies to slow depletion rates through improved management, communications, and efficiencies, but these changes only postpone the inevitable and do not provide a ‘sustainable’ solution.  At the MIT Summit we heard two presentations that I felt stood out.  One was from Starbucks and the other from the City of Boston.  As they both shared their experiences and best practices, I noticed an interesting pattern that I will later use to compare with my two other conferences.

Starbucks
Jim Hanna, the Director of Environmental Impact, leads the sustainability charge for Starbucks.  Starbucks began by evaluating the carbon footprint of every activity along their supply chain and focused on those areas that offered the greatest positive impact to the environment.  In one case they discovered that the nitrous oxide used to make their whip cream was 300 times more damaging to the environment than it’s equivalent volume in carbon dioxide.

Along with other like-minded corporations, Starbucks subscribed to a green certification process for their five roasting operations and, in addition, re-engineered their stores to use 25% less energy and water. They also empowered members of their supply chain to reduce their respective carbon foot print (i.e. paper mills) and supported their revered coffee farmers with fixed pricing, stable contracts, and business know-how.

City of Boston
Jim Hunt, the Chief of Environmental and Energy Services for the City of Boston took a similar infrastructure approach to Starbucks.  His research unveiled that ‘buildings’ and ‘utilities’ together offered a 65% improvement impact, vastly greater than other types of improvements including ‘consumer behavior’, which came in at a surprising 7%.  In conjunction with a third-party advocacy group known as LEEDS, Mr. Hunt’s team focused on new construction and retrofitting of buildings throughout Boston with a goal of becoming a carbon neutral city by 2030.  The improved office buildings would attract like-minded tenants who in turn would offer better jobs. One such building called the ‘Atlantic Wharf’ is rated with distinction as a ‘LEED Gold’ building.  It uses 42% less energy, has a 43% reduction in GHG emissions, and recycles 90% of the rain water for its cooling towers.  This clean energy initiative has rendered more than just savings for the City of Boston.  It has also accounted for over 64,000 clean-energy jobs from R&D to installation.

What struck me most from these two presentations was how both entities focused their resources on infrastructure improvements rather than on consumer or voter awareness.  Their consumers or voters were almost an afterthought and probably not worth the investment.  Perhaps they both felt that consumers/voters would eventually change their behavior or awareness on their own as they adapted to new and improved surroundings at the workplace, especially at companies renting the LEED’s-approved, ‘green‘ office spaces.

Conference #2 – Innovation vs Sustainability
At Reagan National Airport earlier this month, Boeing’s CEO, Jim McNerney, unveiled their new Dreamliner 787 aircraft boasting a 15% fuel reduction due to a whole host of technological advancements including a parabolic wing span and a lighter hull structure made of 100% carbon fiber.  The event attracted other sustainability leaders such IBM’s chairman, Samuel Palmisano, and iRobotics Chief Strategy Officer, Joseph Dyer.

Organized by ‘The Atlantic’, a Washington-based political publication (www.theatlantic.com), these influential  companies delivered a unified message on sustainability that contrasted with the MIT Summit.  Unlike Starbucks and the City of Boston, Boeing, IBM, and iRobotics focused less on infrastructure changes and more on new ways to apply ‘sustainability thinking’ to the process of innovation.  They wanted members of Congress to listen to their views on their collaborative strategic approach to innovation where each player, including the government, would have a specific role.

Boeings Mr. McNerney, felt that the US Government should not invest in specific companies, citing the recent Solyndra bankruptcy.  Instead they should focus on investing in tomorrow’s education and research, write laws to regulate a balance between economic growth and safety, and approve tax policies to help pay for these projects.

IBM’s Mr. Palmisano, noted that the politics of ‘offshore’ manufacturing no longer applies.  According to him, global business no longer has any ‘shores’ to have an ‘offshore’.  As a consequence, Congress should endorse more liberal immigration policies that will allow the global elite who study in US universities to remain working in the US rather than be forced to leave upon graduation.  To the underemployment issue, Mr. Palmisano announced a multi-corporate initiative with Mayor Bloomberg in New York where they are jointly offering a 6-year High School/Associates Engineering Degree program to qualifying students with a promise of a $50k/yr job after graduation.  This program is in its second year and has demonstrated dramatically improved test scores when compared to other schools.

Finally, iRobotics’ Mr. Dyer, felt that innovation companies like his, need a government mandated 30% financial cushion to meet all of the regulatory requirements. At the scale required to make a sustainable difference, innovation companies can no longer rely on the bootstrapping talent of a few eager entrepreneurs.  Just like new employees, startups need ‘an insurance policy’ of sorts to innovate successfully.  Mr. Dyer also shared an imperative discipline for generating successful R&D projects.  The first 10% of a project’s funding should include extensive planning and scheduling for the remainder of the project.  According to him, too many promising projects begin on loose terms that are based on hope rather than on sound planning.

Conference #3 – Excess Capacity
The third event I attended was an MIT presentation given by the co-founder of Zipcar.com and the founder of Buzzcar.com, Robin Chase.  Ms. Chase’s world looks at sustainability from a different lens.  Rather than address depleting resources, Ms. Chase focuses on organizing excess capacity to help alleviate the demand pressures from a growing population.  For example, assets sitting idle such as a parked car can be used by another person who might otherwise purchase their own vehicle.  Another example she cited is in Bogota, Colombia where a 130km stretch of a roadway is opened for pedestrian usage on Sundays.  …and of course, there is ‘cloud computing’.

The conclusions from Conference #3 were strikingly different from the other two.  First, unlike Starbucks and the City of Boston, Ms. Chase’s approach to Zipcars leaned heavily on the community for both endorsement and feedback and paid little attention to infrastructure improvements.  Once more, Robin’s approach to innovation was far simpler than Boeing’s, IBM’s, or iRobitics.  In her case new ideas could evolve with one or two trials at a near zero cost per trial.

Despite their common goal to achieve sustainability, each entity identified the approach that best suited their immediate needs.  Obviously what would work for one may not necessarily work for another, making the task of promoting sustainability that much more difficult.  No doubt sustainability is complex and the debate of how the planet can achieve sustainability will continue through many more iterations.  Allowing the debate to recycle freely and often, may be the optimal universal approach to lay the foundations for an international master plan.