Cities Can Take the Lead to Cut Pollution and Improve Air Quality

By Dr. Pat Gruber, PhD, CEO of Gevo, Inc.

Cities now can take the lead on cutting pollution within their own city limits. Clean air is better for their citizens, better optics for any city of any size, and this leadership is better for the world as a whole. Advanced bio-based renewable fuels can solve this problem today and begin to solve the world’s carbon-footprint problems at the same time. Air pollution and global warming caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are going to take every solution people can come up with to solve them. The sooner we get started, the more manageable those problems will be down the road.

City governments have to deal with a lot of factors, including a vocal electorate, tight budgets, the health and quality of life of their citizens, creating an appealing, livable environment that invites business and investment, and the list goes on. One of the simplest moves they can make is to fuel municipal vehicles with advanced renewable fuel.

Consider Seattle, where Gevo ran a pilot program that illustrates the adoption of advanced bio-based renewable fuel. The City of Seattle set a mandate for vehicles to reduce GHG emissions by 8 percent each year, year over year, eventually reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Because fleet managers were looking to use the existing vehicles in their fleet, without making modifications or infrastructure changes, we offered our isobutanol-blended gasoline to help meet the requirement. This is a product that’s commercially available. Because our isobutanol is blended with gasoline to 16 percent, it carries with it the commensurate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Seattle pilot program initially included six vehicles over a six-month period, but because of the initial success, fleet managers expanded the program to 25 vehicles in the first month. After the successful pilot program, Seattle selected Gevo to provide fuel on a multiyear contract. The agreement will transition from isobutanol-blended gasoline to a renewable-gasoline product with a 50-percent renewable fraction that uses Gevo’s isooctane as blendstock as well. We can blend isooctane with petroleum-based gasoline just as it is to get the same result and the calculations aren’t hard, since the portion that’s our fuel is net-zero carbon. So whatever percentage of advance bio-based renewable fuel ends up in the mix is the reduction in emissions. This renewable gasoline is expected to be commercially available prior to our planned expansion in 2023.

Here’s what Seattle understood from the pilot program: By using our advanced bio-based renewable fuel in city vehicles, the municipal government took a leadership role in helping to reduce pollution within its city limits. Our advanced renewable fuels don’t have the particulates, sulfur, and aromatics that petroleum fuels do. These are the components in tailpipe emissions from fossil-fuel-burning vehicles that contribute to smog formation. Some estimates suggest there are up to 4,000 chemicals in fossil fuels that get into the air and water and contribute to health problems. By creating our fuels from the molecule up, rather than extracting fuel from fossil-based sources, we can eliminate many of those undesirable additives.

The result: cleaner fuel that provides the right amount of energy, using renewable carbon. This is good news for municipalities that may be held responsible for their GHG emissions. Wouldn’t any city want to be able to show that their vehicles aren’t contributing to that pollution?

The practicality of the renewable solution is important for any city on a budget—i.e., every city. Switching from petroleum-based fuels to our advanced bio-based renewable fuels delivers immediate reductions in carbon footprint with virtually no investment. A city needs to purchase no new vehicles or any kind of special pumps to deliver the fuel. Existing engines and filling stations all can accommodate the change.

Here’s what else Seattle discovered: Consider a municipal transportation fleet, operating gasoline-powered vehicles. The capital expenditure to buy those vehicles was substantial, and it becomes even more expensive if that government, acting within the time frame it expects to own those vehicles, mandates a reduction in carbon footprint that cuts the service life of the entire fleet short. Instead, fuel up those city vehicles with Gevo renewable gasoline. The carbon footprint is reduced, and the city budget sees no appreciable capital-expenditure impact while achieving the goals set forth.

The flipside is not appealing in the short term. If EV were the only solution available, a city would have to change its fleets of vehicles and set up the charging infrastructure to support them. Electric vehicles are quiet and produce no air pollution, but their carbon footprint is determined by the grid that charges them, and many cities still rely on fossil-based energy. Not all municipal vehicles can realize the benefits of electrification, since the service time ratio of driving to idle makes electric conversion an unfeasible solution for street sweepers, emergency first-responders, sanitation vehicles, and other specialty vehicles.

By adopting renewable fuel instead, the city can hit its emissions-reduction requirements, can make the most of its investment in its current fleet, and has time to plan for a phase-in of EV technology. The longer the horizon for the EVs the better, since the prices may drop, and battery technology will improve and continue to get cleaner.

Gevo is ready to offer pilot programs to other municipal governments, to begin the move toward renewable fuels and carbon-footprint reduction and away from air pollution and reliance on fossil-based fuels. We support government leadership and encourage decisive action in the short term to reduce GHG emissions, while adopting additional measures in the middle and long term.