COP26 Has Ended and Now It’s Time for Action—Drop-In Advanced Renewable Fuels Are a Good Start

As we learned from COP26, we’re shooting for Global Net-Zero by 2050. That is an admirable goal, but we’re already falling behind the pace as a planet. We need action now, and in ways that begin to slow the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in measurable, meaningful amounts, and yet allow us to have ready access to the energy needed for continued economic and transportation growth.

Everyone who is paying attention to Gevo knows we’re on a crusade in the pursuit of Net-Zero drop-in fuels. We are in the business of transforming renewable energy into energy-dense liquids like SAF and motor fuels. We have learned that we can convert renewable carbon from the atmosphere into renewable gasoline, sustainable aviation fuel, and renewable diesel fuel as well as the building block chemicals to make most plastics and other larger volume chemicals. The technologies work. It must start with business. If a sustainable fuels or energy company cannot achieve net-zero, how is it going to sell its wares to nations full of people who need this goal to be met? The key to driving out the fossil footprint in all these products is renewable electricity and alternatives to fossil-based natural gas. If we reduce and eliminate fossil energy from our production systems, we will be able to achieve Net-Zero fossil footprints of our products as measured across the whole of the business system. That means all the way from carbon capture to tailpipe or the exhaust of a jet engine.

One problem with agreements among nations is there’s no real higher authority to answer to: Everyone agrees, and then they all go home and continue to do whatever they want, and usually it is exactly what they were doing before. At Gevo, we don’t look at the world through those rose-colored glasses. Instead, there’s a driving force in the world that is much more powerful than any international agreement: economics. The world must get serious about sustainability measures and that comes first from consumers making the best choices. That may mean they only buy an airline seat on a plane if it is fueled by SAF. It means paying attention to which companies continue to meet higher and higher standards for land use and water quality and clean energy in their production processes, and choosing to patronize those businesses. The farmers who grow our feedstocks adhere to our higher standards for carbon capture and sustainability of their processes and regeneration of the soil, and they submit to testing and documentation of their methods. We don’t expect them to do that for market price—we pay a premium for that feedstock because it delivers the carbon sequestration we need. That’s how the world works.

Agriculture and forestry are at the core of everything we do. According to the EPA, agriculture accounts for 10 percent of GHG emissions in the United States, while forestry and land use are a net sink for emissions. The EPA shares similar metrics for these emissions numbers globally as well, and the picture is vastly different: Agriculture, forestry, and land use account for 24 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. In this way, we and other developed countries can be seen as leaders in using the available resources effectively. Still, we’re looking at every opportunity in these sectors to improve those numbers, whether it’s finding additional uses for nutrition products, corn oil, and other components of sustainably grown and sourced agriculture and forestry products to broaden and deepen their impact across a greater swath of the economy. Farmers who partner with us gain access to a vast trove of shared knowledge that helps them put sustainable farming methods into practice. These include low-till or no-till techniques that build up organic matter in the soil and keep nutrients in place, smart use of water to prevent loss of nutrients and other regenerative farming practices.

It’s the scale of agriculture that makes it so valuable. With a growing population, humanity’s need for food is not going anywhere, so the world must leverage those millions of acres to do more with that land. The efficiency of farmland is huge factor, and the emerging countries can learn from our methods and grow their food and source of fuel at the same time. But we must be cautious as we proceed. While we spend a lot of our time looking forward and seeing how the future will play out, we also look back to make sure the legacy we’re building on is not tainted by deforestation or other practices deemed wrong or even questionable. Gevo does not work with providers whose land was cleared or deforested to produce our feedstock. We confirm that all supplier farms have not undergone adverse land changes since at the latest January 1, 2008, and routinely monitor farms to ensure that there are no new adverse land-use changes. Gevo has explored satellite technologies that further enable this verification process. We have obtained certification under Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) and the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) for our process, both of which involve extensive analysis of the environmental impact of our feedstock and fuel production. To obtain RSB certification, we developed and routinely update an Environmental and Social Management Plan (ESMP), practices involve minimal risk of adverse impacts to land use, biodiversity, water use, soil health, air quality, human health, and food security.

All of the businesses that are aligned in the fight to reduce greenhouse gases, advanced renewable fuels, electric vehicles (EVs), hydrogen, we have some similar issues with infrastructure. Just as a process for making energy-dense liquids needs to be powered by renewable energy to get anywhere, the same goes for EVs and hydrogen. Plug any of those systems into a fossil-powered grid and we’re right back where we started, since any growth just grows emissions. If our business system has access to renewable energy, then it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the fossil footprint could be reduced and potentially eliminated. Because of the size of our renewable energy need and the ability to achieve economies of scale, we expect that our business system could further catalyze development of renewable energy. We are finding that there is great interest in building out renewable energy infrastructure, and those companies need big customers.

Even better than changing the infrastructure for the future, our products drop into existing pipelines and enhance existing markets—no one needs new airplanes, cars or trucks, to reduce or even eliminate the fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions footprint from combustion engines.

Because it’s an immediate change, we must develop our product to do what we say it will, right out of the box. Our Net-Zero 1 plant design is being designed with the carbon footprint in mind, and we are working with Juhl Energy in a wind farm that would be wired directly to the plant. We are planning to install a wastewater treatment plant that has the ability to ensure we have water for use in the production process. But equally as important, that wastewater treatment process is expected to produce enough bio-based methane to run the plant.

Here’s the bottom line: Using the world-leading Argonne National Laboratories GREET model, we substitute the energy sources, get away from fossil-based sources and use carbohydrates from sustainably grown corn to build a system that should be able to achieve a Net-Zero fossil carbon footprint across the whole life cycle from carbon capture to tail pipe or exhaust of a jet engine.

COP26 has the right idea. But ideas aren’t enough anymore. We need to act. It’s going to take all our ideas put into practice—advanced renewable fuels, EVs, hydrogen, better agriculture, more efficient energy use, and countless others, including those we haven’t thought of yet—to begin to solve the greenhouse gas emissions problem. We need to stop poking holes in each other’s ideas and start looking for ways to improve the situation. While we still have a choice in the matter.