Throw Deep: Heard on the Floor at the Washington Sustainable Aviation Fuels Summit

March 11, 2019 |

Ken “Snake” Stabler was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and made the NFL Hall of Fame, but his life and philosophy had never, to my knowledge, been invoked at a conference on the prospects for sustainable aviation fuels. That is, until former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told last week in Seattle of an erudite sportswriter who once quoted a scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and asked Stabler what he thought that Brutus’ words to Cassius meant:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.

The star quarterback paused and then offered, “Throw deep.”

It was Mabus’ keynote message to the conference, on the value of setting an ambitious target, and Port of Seattle Commissioner Fred Felleman noted:

“Secretary Mabus advised us to set a goal. If it’s good enough for the Navy, it’s good enough for SeaTac airport, and we’ve established a partnership with 13 airlines with a goal of moving to 10 percent renewable fuels by 2028, that’s 80 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuels, more than are made in the market today worldwide, so it’s not a trivial amount, and it is intended as a  clear market signal. In our 2019 budget we have allocated $5M to developing and sourcing feedstocks and establishing a supply chain at at the Port. And we have made passing Washington Legislature Bill 1110 (for a Washington state Low Carbon Fuel Standard) a real priority. Hopefully we close the door, so that what is produced here in renewable fuels can stay here instead of heading for California, Oregon or British Columbia where low carbon standards are already in place. What we have to do is to take the most current science and move forward.”

The New Normal

Mabus agrees.

“in 2016 we bought the biggest sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) purchase ever — 77 million gallons of a 90/10 blend — AltAir supplied that fuel, and we got it for a penny cheaper than straight conventional energy. They also supplied 60 million of a 70/30 blend in 2018 at a cost of $1.91 a gallon, and in between they provided another 70/30 58 million gallons. And in these last two buys, they were made since we left. The navy and the marines recognize it and pretty publicly it gives them an edge. It makes them better, more flexible, more adaptable. “

It’s what he described once as a New Normal

“You don’t think of the ardent environmentalist when you think of the Marines, you think of guys who like to blow stuff up, but we used to use these big generators to provide power [even in forward areas], and at night you could hear the generators and our adversaries knew ‘that’s where the Americans are’, and now we have been able to move away from that, and they have become even better at being the most lethal and effective expeditionary fighting force the world has ever known. And we now have SEAL teams who can now operate on net zero energy and can stay out indefinitely. 

“Now. thanks to the Port Commissioners and the airlines, the technology for sustainable aviation fuels s beginning to move from the navy to the commercial world, and in part it is because of that market seeding that happened when the Pentagon, which is the world’s largest user of fossil fuels on earth, showed that it could change, and do it in a way that made it a better organization.

“So can the private sector. But we have got to take the technologies of today and use them today. There are always science projects going on, and always there will be more efficient and better methods in the future, but we have the technologies that will take us forward now, and all sorts of feedstocks like waste oils and fats and municipal solid waste and wood waste and more.

A lot of companies are now buying carbon offsets and that’s an important market but a better way is to start buying a carbon solution. For example, in corporate aviation where usually that fuel costs 2-3X what commercial airlines pay, because it is bought in small quantities. But the impact is outsized when big companies that have big corporate aviation needs begin to buy SAF, and the word of that notion spreads. It used to be that corporations had to choose between the environment and the bottom line, today you can do both.”

The Port of Seattle perspective

Port Commissioner Ryan Calkins said:

“Transport is one of the toughest targets, and as other sources of fossil fuel usage begin to decline or flatline, aviation is projected to contribute a larger and bigger piece of the emissions pie, and we know there must be a better way and SAF gives us a path. The goal we have set of 80 million gallons by 2028 is many times the current world production, but we are absolutely going to hit that target, and our model can be adopted. We have a governor so serious about climate change he’s willing to stake his presidential campaign on it, we have the producers, the academic partners, we have airline partners committed to use when it becomes viable. The first step is to pass a clean fuels standard, because an LCFS will bring enormous environmental and innovation benefits for our state. There is a complete lack of oil derricks in our state, fossil fuels are a cash transfer out of state, and we would rather spend on locally produced biofuels instead of imported fossil fuels.”

World Energy: The RFS and the LCFS, we need both

World Energy’s Scott Lewis took that stage to talk about the balance between the US Renewable Fuel Standard and the Low Carbon Fuel Standards that are now in place or under consideration by the states. 

“LCFS sets up a really easy goal, you know what you need to achieve and where the opportunities are and it is very easy to work with your engineers when you have the carbon opportunities that the LCFS presents. But the RFS is here, it exists and it is tremendously helpful,  and rather see a status quo than too much change. I wouldn’t recommend to the states an RFS route. most states are looking at an LCFS program. But one thing, I hope they can all sign off on one methodology, such as the California rules, because it becomes really painful to reapply and recertify fuels every time you cross a state line.”

LanzaTech outlines its growth

“Carbon is really precious,” said LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren in her remarks at the Summit. “We have to stop using carbon once, and we should not use it to generate electricity at all, we should reserve it for aviation fuels and for chemicals where we need carbon.” She added:

“LanzaTech technology is not science fiction. We are now running two production trains in China, these production trains have 11 million gallons in annual capacity and we have made already made 5 million gallons since May. If you do the math, you know that this works, and everyone who said that gas fermentation would never amount to anything were incorrect, this does work. Now, we operated four pilot demonstrations and 80000 operating off-lab hours, and we are in our 14th year. But in the world of large-scale fuels and chemicals it can take 30 years to scale a technology, and this is fast by comparison because all we have been doing at LanzaTech is this one single-purpose effort at commercialization. For our partners there is payback in 3 years and it makes economic sense.”

Holmgren highlighted the LanzaTech projects now in construction or operation:

Swayana (South Africa), using ferro-alloy off gas
Indian Oil (India), using refinery tail gases
Shougang (China), using steel off gas
Arcelor Mittal -(Belgium), using steel off gas
Aemetis (California), using gasified orchard waste
Sekisui -(Japan) using gasified MSW

Those projects will produce ethanol, and LanzaJet technology can convert that ethanol (or that of others) to jet fuel. Lanzajet technology was in the lab in 2015, reached pilot-scale in 2016, goes to a 10 million gallon demonstration in 2020 and by 2022 the company expects to have 90 million gallons in capacity at 3 plants— maybe a little more, Holmgren teases.

A Solid Market Signal

That’s more than the Port of Seattle’s ambitions for 2028, and demonstrates the value of a solid market signal, and the value of throwing deep.

That Stabler quote has been around a while, and it seems like every time you hear it the Snake is responding to a different quote. The first time I heard the story, the quote was from Jack London, and the sportswriter said to Stabler:

“I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor than a sleepy, permanent planet.”

In both versions, when asked what it means, Stabler responds, “Throw Deep“. and it probably doesn’t matter except in the tangential fact that Jack London spent quality time in Seattle on his way to and from achieving his fame as a writer in the Klondike in the Yukon Gold Rush, and neither Brutus nor Cassius ever made it to the great Northwest.

Throw Deep. It’s what Mabus has challenged corporations and airlines to do, it’s what the likes Of LanzaTech and the Port of Seattle are doing. Will Washington state’s legislators rise to the challenge by passing the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard? Will airlines continue to foster adoption? 

For now, the deep ball appears to be the path to winning. As Al Davis once asked of his Oakland Raiders, and Millennials around the world might be asking of the growing sustainable aviation fuels community,  “Just win, baby.”

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