A smarter approach to biofuels

A field of sorghum–it grows tall and fast!

The US biofuels industry has not covered itself in glory. It has consumed billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars, as much if not more from investors and in return delivered economic and environmental benefits that are murky at best, at least according to its critics.

You’ll hear a different story from the industry, which is desperately trying to retain its support in Congress and the White House. The  importance of the Iowa presidential caucuses virtually assure that no candidate for president can oppose support for corn ethanol, the dominant US biofuel. It was the Bush administration, you may recall, that launched the current push into biofuels, with the enthusiastic support of a corn state US Senator Barack Obama.

The thing is, biofuels need to be part of a low-carbon US economy. About 40 percent of emissions come from transportation–cars, trucks, trains, planes, buses, farm and construction equipment, etc.  These existing fleetss can’t be electrified en masse, anytime soon, if ever. So for decades ahead it’s fossil fuels or biofuels–an easy choice.

That said, it has become increasingly clear that corn ethanol “has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today,” according to this excellent analysis from Dina Capiello and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press.

In their 2013 investigation, they write:

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies..

And as for the climate benefits of corn ethanol, the AP reporters say:

The government’s predictions of the benefits have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases. 


The trouble is that corn needs fertilizer (which is made from natural gas), requires irrigation (at least in some parts of the country) and, in an ideal world, would be used to feed people (or animals, if you insist), but not cars and trucks.

About the best thing you can say about corn ethanol is that it will pave the way (oops, that’s an unfortunate metaphor) for advanced biofuels that are cleaner and greener. Some of these are on the way–a bunch of cellulosic ethanol plants are scheduled to begin commercial operations this year, including the Project Liberty plant from Poet and DSM in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and a DuPont facility in Nevada, Iowa. Both will use corn waste.

Why, though, can’t we make biofuels from crops that are designed and bred for energy? That’s the question that led a young entrepreneur named Anna Rath to start a company called NexSteppe, whose current focus is sorghum. I invited Anna to Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in May, where she won the “Great Green Ideas” competition, and wrote about NexSteppe the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

As scientists around the world research biomass feedstocks — trees, shrubs and grasses that are designed to produce energy — a California startup called NexSteppe is betting that fast-growing, drought-resistant sorghum will emerge as a crop to sustainably fuel cars, trucks and power plants.

Sorghum, a millenia-old cereal grain, today feeds animals and people. It is turned into flour, syrups and beer, and used in gluten-free products. In Asia, sorghum is made into couscous, and across Africa, it’s consumed as a porridge.

Last year, though, NexSteppe introduced two new brands of sorghum seeds, dubbed Palo Alto and Malibu, that were bred expressly to be energy crops. They grow on marginal land and in a variety of climates, and they climb to a height of 20 feet after only four months of growth.

“Sorghum is naturally very heat and drought tolerant,” says Anna Rath, NexSteppe’s founder, president and CEO. “It originated in Africa. It’s a camel of a crop, if you will.”

Although NexSteppe has done almost no marketing outside of Brazil, its biggest market, the company’s sorghum is now being grown by farmers in 15 countries, including China, India, South Africa, Germany, Canada and the US.

Sorghum may not be the ideal feedstock for biofuels. It’s used for food, after all. But it appears to offer major advantages over corn.

More important is the idea behind NexSteppe–that we should breed crops for energy, just as we have very successfully bred crops for food since the invention of agriculture. Government and university scientists are trying to do just that, as the story goes on to say. You can read the rest here.

Verlasso: Farming salmon the right way

salmon“In the fish counter, all the salmon are dead, all the salmon are red, and none of them can tell a story. It’s incumbent on us to tell the story.”

That’s Scott Nichols, the director of Verlasso. Verlasso, a joint venture of DuPont and AquaChile, farms salmon in Patagonia, and seeks to do so in a responsible way. So Scott has a story to tell.

“We feel a tremendous urgency to get this right,” Scott said, when we met recently in Washington. “We have to learn our way into it. We don’t have all the answers, and we may not have all the questions.”

Scott Nichols
Scott Nichols

A PhD. biochemist who studied business at Wharton, Scott, who is 57, never expected to find himself in the business of fish farming. But as he researched new business opportunities for DuPont in the mid-2000s — he had earlier worked on improving the productivity of maize and beans and on Sorona, the company’s plant-based fiber — he got interested in salmon aquaculture. Aquaculture was booming, for obvious reasons: demand for fish is growing, and the supply of wild-caught fish is flat. The problem, was, salmon aquaculture then and now usually relies upon fish feed made in part from forage fish, such as anchovies, herring and sardines. About four pounds of wild-caught feeder fish are typically needed to produce the fish oil to make one pound of salmon, according to Verlasso. So salmon aquaculture, rather than easing pressures on the ocean’s stocks of wild fish, was actually making things worse.

“The system was broken,” Scott said.

Scientists at giant DuPont (2012 revenues: $35 billion) discovered that they could substitute a genetically-engineered yeast for the fish oils, and preserve the [click to continue…]

Corn, catastrophes and climate

Now you do believe in global warming?

That was the headline over a story last week by Time’s Bryan Walsh, citing this summer’s heat waves and wildfires. The money quote:

“What we see now is what global warming really looks like,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate expert and a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. “The heat, the fires, these kinds of environmental disasters.”

This past week, I had reason to think about climate change–not so much the science but the costs, and how we are planning to pay them. As most of you know, efforts to regulate global warming pollutants have failed, so far, in the US because opponents argue that they will be too costly. “Job-killing climate regulations” was the sound bite. The trouble with this argument is that doing nothing will cost us money, too. Indeed, it already is, although most of those costs are hidden–in places like our premiums for homeowners insurance, our tax bills, or the price we will pay for burgers or chicken.

Put simply, when it comes to climate change, we can pay now or pay later. But we’re going to pay. [click to continue…]

Zero waste: Exciting, radical and real

Zero waste is one of the most exciting ideas I’ve come across in nearly a decade of writing about business and sustainability.

In the short run, it makes business sense.

In the long run, it has the potential to transform the way we design and make things.

Garbage–and how to eliminate it from our lives–is more interesting than you’d guess. I’ve kept an eye on the zero waste trend since writing a story called The End of Garbage for FORTUNE in 2007. More recently, I wrote about DuPont’s efforts to eliminate waste. Walmart did so well at reducing and recycling waste that it turned what had been a cost (landfill fees) into an asset (revenues from recycling.). Even Waste Management, the nation’s biggest trash hauler, is remaking its business to extract value from waste. [See my 2010 FORTUNE story, Waste Management Earns Its Name]

Why is zero waste a radical idea? Because, as I wrote in Fortune, it leads to a new way of thinking:

Getting to a wasteless world will require nothing less than a total makeover of the global economy, which thinkers such as entrepreneur Paul Hawken, consultant Amory Lovins, and architect William McDonough have called the Next Industrial Revolution.

They want industry to mimic biology, where one species’ excrement is another’s food. “We’re not talking here about eliminating waste,” McDonough explains. “We’re talking about eliminating the entire concept of waste.”

In two weeks, I’ll be in Costa Mesa, CA, at the first national business conference on zero waste, sponsored by the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, a fledgling nonprofit set up to promote the idea of zero waste in the corporate world. The event begins on June 26, and I’ll be giving a talk (called “Zero waste: Exciting, radical and real!) on June 27. I’m also hoping to learn more about progress towards zero waste, as well as what obstacles stand in the way.  Toyota Motor Sales, SuperValu/Albertsons, Ricoh Electronics, Inc and Sierra Nevada are among the companies sending speakers.

If your company has a story to tell about waste, let me know in the next week or so (by email, please), and I will consider working it into my talk or my coverage. And I hope to see some of you there.

Getting to zero at DuPont

Zero’s a good number when it comes to sustainability. Zero emissions. Net-zero energy buildings. And, of course, zero waste.

I’ve been excited by the idea of zero waste ever since I wrote a FORTUNE story called The End of Garbage in 2007. Zero waste is radical. It’s attainable. It’s good business. And it’s cool. As the architect and designer Bill McDonough likes to say: “We’re not talking here about eliminating waste. We’re talking about eliminating the entire concept of waste.”

Companies get excited, too. General Motors, Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Albertson’s and SuperValu are all driving towards zero waste, as GreenBiz reported last year.

But how does a company eliminate waste? That’s what I wanted to know when I heard that DuPont’s buildings division had gone from sending 81 million points of waste to landfill in 2008 to zero in 2012.

Crushed corian--garbage or not?

To find out, I arranged to speak with Dave Walter, a DuPont exec who led the zero waste effort. Dave, who is 52, has held 19 different jobs in his 29 years with DuPont. His current job is North American Strategic Product Manager for DuPont Building Innovations (who makes up these titles?), which basically means that he takes on a variety of projects for the company’s building products unit. Educated as a chemist and computer scientist, Dave is a “black belt” in Six Sigma, a set of management practices developed by Motorola in the 1980s and later popularized by GE. [click to continue…]

Elizabeth Grossman: Chronic polluters also put workers at risk

Elizabeth Grossman

Today’s guest post comes from Elizabeth Grossman, a gifted environmental journalist who is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, YaleEnvironment360, The Washington Post, The Nation and Grist. I met Lizzie this past fall at the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) conference; she’s been writing about science and the environment for more than a decade.

She reported this story by taking EPA data uncovered by the Center for Public Integrity, and checking it against publicly-available information from OSHA. Her story got my attention because it suggests (based on admittedly limited evidence) that companies that are careless or irresponsible about air pollution also have workplace-safety issues. I wasn’t surprised to see BP among them–my FORTUNE colleagues David Whitford and Peter Elkind did a great job dissecting its culture in BP: “An Accident Waiting to Happen.’  Seeing DuPont on the list did surprise me, since the company is known for its safety culture. This story first appeared at The Pump Handle, a website about public health and the environment.

We have learned from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request and released by the Center for Public Integrity earlier this month that there are currently about 465 United States industrial facilities on what the EPA calls its “watch list.” The list is made up of businesses EPA considers chronic violators of the Clean Air Act – but against which the agency has taken no formal enforcement action. An examination of these same companies’ occupational health and safety records reveals them also to be chronic violators of Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) standards.

These “watch list” facilities are located all over the country, but many are clustered in historical manufacturing hubs in the Midwest, Southeast, and along the Gulf Coast. Nearly all can be described as heavy industry. They include petroleum refineries and facilities making chemicals, cement, paper, paint, pharmaceuticals, and metal products, along with waste treatment (landfills, recycling, and incinerators) facilities, meat processing plants, mines, pipelines, a shipyard, and automotive plants. OSHA typically inspects about one percent of the United States’ 8 to 9 million workplaces annually, but more than 70 percent of the “watch list” companies have received OSHA inspections over the past ten years. Those without inspection records included US military facilities and mines that OSHA is not authorized to inspect, as well as a number of public facilities and utilities: municipal landfills, water treatment plants, and generating stations.

Overall, the OSHA inspection reports for the EPA “watch list” companies reveal what for many of these companies appears to be a history of chronic OSHA violations. Some of these companies had dozens of violations over the past ten years; a few had more than 100. (To round out the picture of these companies’ operations, I included both the specific “watch list” facilities and the individual companies’ comparable operations in other locations.) Among the companies with the most recorded OSHA violations at their various facilities around the country was BP Products, with more than 400 at facilities nationwide – violations that included 314 in one inspection record following the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers. (The Deepwater Horizon incident does not yet appear in BP’s OSHA inspection records.) International Paper was cited for more than 295 violations, while Republic Engineered Products (part of Republic Steel) had more than 170 violations, various divisions of DuPont nationwide received more than 130 citations for OSHA violations, and the Greif company, manufacturer of packaging materials, was cited for about 100 violations nationwide in the past decade. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel exceeded 100 violations since 2001, and Weyerhaueser‘s various divisions around the country were cited for more than 300. [click to continue…]

Biotech food for a warming planet

Climate change is here, folks, and I’m not saying so because it’s hot outside. This is a big worry, or at least it should be.

But big problems create big business opportunities: A California biotech company called Arcadia Biosciences has set out to help farmers do their part to slow down the process of global warming and adapt to a resource-constrained world–by developing crop varieties that require less water, tolerate salty conditions and use less nitrogen fertilizer.

This photo shows two varieties of rice. On the left is rice engineered for nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) by Arcadia, on the right conventional rice. In laboratory tests, using typical applications of nitrogen fertilizer, the NUE rice, as it’s known, is substantially more productive. When you can grow more food using the same inputs of land, water and fertilizer, everyone–farmers, consumers, hungry people and anyone who cares about CO2 concentrations in the earth’s atmosphere–is better off.

So, at least, says Eric Rey, the founder and CEO of Arcadia. Others will disagree because Arcadia deploys genetic-engineering technology that some (many?) environmentalists oppose. But when we met last week in Washington, Eric told me that he considers himself an environmentalists and, in fact, it was his concern about disappearing species, pollution and climate issues that led him to start the company back in 2002.

The company’s purpose, Eric said, is to “use the the tools of plant biotechnology, and point them at saving the environment.” When developing a new crop variety, he said, “if we can’t put our fingers on an environmental benefit or a human health benefit, we won’t do it.”
[click to continue…]

Don’t forget the S in EHS

So outdated has the EHS job title become that when you Google those three letters, the words “environmental, health and safety”  appear just below the Electronic Health School in Utah and above an Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.

Even less fashionable is the “S.” Given the enthusiasm in much of corporate America for all things green and sustainable, it’s easy to forget about workplace safety.

That’s a mistake, as last year’s dramatic headlines about the BP oil spill and the Massey energy mine disaster should have reminded us.

Next week, the Sustainable Business Forum — a website which carries stories from my blog, along with many others — will present a webinar about safety and sustainability. You can register here for the webinar, for a free e-book about safety and sustainability or for both.

The webinar, to be held Wednesday, March 2 at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT, will bring together experts from the National Safety Council, from a consulting firm called AHC Group and from DuPont, a company that got so good at workplace safety that it turned its knowledge into a consulting business. My former FORTUNE colleague Richard Murphy will moderate. [click to continue…]

DuPont: Beyond petroleum

Yes, I know, that’s BP’s slogan. But if you are looking for a company that is trying to replace oil with renewable products, consider DuPont.

Izod Yoga wear made with SoronaBrands like Izod (left), Timberland and Calvin Klein Gold all sell clothes made with DuPont’s Sorona, a renewable feedstock made from corn rather than petrochemicals. You’ll also find Sorona in some carpets sold by Mohawk Industries and in the interior fabrics of Toyota hybrids. DuPont’s  Hytrel, a thermoplastic elastomer (basically a rubbery plastic) made from plants, is used instead of oil-based materials in some Salomon ski boots and in automobile components. Zemea, a 100% renewably-sourced glycol from DuPont, which is made out of corn, shows up in skincare and cosmetics sold under the Philosophy brand and in Biotone spa products. Susterra, a bio-based propanediol made from corn sugar in Tennessee by a joint venture of DuPont and Tate & Lyle, finds its way into engine coolants and deicing materials.

DuPont’s efforts to get beyond petroleum are significant, and not just to people who don’t want to smear oil-based product on their face. Replacing petroleum-based products–from gasoline to plastic bags to lipstick–with renewably-sourced products makes consumption, and the economy more sustainable. That’s partly why DuPont is doing it, but the primary reason that the company is developing alternatives to oil is that it believes oil will become scarcer and prices will rise, opening the door for renewable alternatives.

In a fact sheet inelegantly headlined  Reducing Dependence on Fossil Fuels Megatrend, DuPont says:

Whether the focus is on energy security, climate change, population growth or the new reality of the global economy where demand for natural resources is increasing while availability is decreasing, the world needs to use energy smarter and generate it from more renewable sources.

As result, the company is developing a portfolio of biofuels including cellulosic ethanol; films, resins and substrates  for the solar photovoltaic industry;  new materials that insulate and encapsulate the components of wind turbines; membranes for fuel cells, and so on. Because DuPont is a business-to-business science company, its efforts are typically not seen by consumers. (The company’s best-known consumer brand is Corian, which is used in counter tops.) But as a Fortune 500 company with $27-billion in annual revenues, DuPont’s activities help shape countless other businesses and their products. [click to continue…]

In search of the perfect biofuel

Funny thing about the biofuels business. Roughly 200 companies are pursuing the perfect biofuel—as cheap as fossil fuels, adaptable to today’s infrastructure, low-carbon, sustainable and no threat to the food supply or to tropical forests. But even cutting-edge startups that say they have the puzzle just about solved can’t raise the money they need to get into commercial production.

“Everyone wants to be the first to finance the second plant,” says Arnold Klann, the CEO of biofuels firm Blue Fire Ethanol. “No one one wants to be first to finance the first one.”

“Banks are not willing to lend,” Klann said. “They’re risk averse.” The industry needs the support of banks or the public markets because a commercial scale will cost upwards of $100 million, more than the venture capitalists now financing the industry want to put at risk. Publicly-traded Blue Fire makes ethanol from wood wastes, urban trash, rice and wheat straws, and it was awarded a $40 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, but it has been slow to get to commercial production and investors are skeptical. The firm’s market capitalization is only about $25 million.

Biofuels are on my mind because I  spent the day at BIO International, a sprawling (14,000 attendees) biotech industry convention in Atlanta. I’ve written very little about biofuels, mostly because the science of turning plants into fuel is quite complicated, and so it’s hard to separate companies with a shot at making it big from those with no hope. That’s not just a challenge for me—the corn ethanol industry has destroyed many millions of dollars of capital from investors who rushed in too quickly.

Still, there are strong forces driving biofuels, most of them emanating from Washington where Congress has adopted biofuels mandates. The historic Waxman-Markey climate change bill just passed by the House energy committee will, if it becomes law, provide another boost to biofuels by raising the price of gasoline and diesel fuels.

At BIO, Laurence Alexander, the managing director of investment bank Jefferies & Co., moderated an excellent panel that taught me a bunch of things. Some highlights:

It takes a lot of feedstock to make biofuels. For ethanol to account for 5% of U.S. gasoline use, it would require turning 33% of the U.S. corn crop into ethanol. Globally, it would take 100% of the soy, rapeseed and palm oil production to produce 10% of the global supply of diesel. That’s at current yields, of course, which is why it’s so vital to drive up yields.

Biofuels have an image problem. “Glib critics,” Alexander said, “could shift the policy debate.” The industry needs to prepare to answer tough questions, even if they are only loosely based on reality: How many children did you starve to drive to work today? Can we run out of arable land? Will biofuels drain the acquifers?

Not all feedstocks are created equal. I knew that, of course, but the variations in productivity are dramatic. In terms of gallons of fuel that can be produced per acre, according to Aristides Patrinos, the president of a company called Synthetic Genomics, sugar cane (800) and switchgrass (500) outperform corn (375) and jatropha (202). Still, his company, which was started by Craig Venter, is excited about jatropha because it yields a high quality oil, grows in poor soils and can live in semi-arid regions. “That’s in our view an ideal fuel because it doesn’t really compete for the same land where you can grow food,” Patrinos said. It’s ripe for significant genetic modification to improve yields. “We’ve just recently announced the sequencing of the jatropha genome,” he said. Who knew?

Two well-funded startups delivered impressive presentations. One was Amyris Biotechnologies, which I knew about. A fascinating company, backed by Kleiner Perkins, that first produced a low-cost anti-malaria drug for the Gates Foundation and is now making diesel fuel at a pilot plant in northern California. (Jack Newman, a co-founder, has twice been a popular speaker at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green.) The other was Solazyme, another Bay Area firm that uses algae to convert cellulosic feedstocks into fuel. Harrison Dillon, the president and chief technology officer, who also happens to be a patent lawyer, said the firm is able to make oil-based fuels at a commercial scale but that its cost are still higher than fossil fuels.

Because of capital constraints, it may be that well-established players will have to enter the market to take biofuels to scaleor . DuPont and Genencor, a division of a Danish firm called Danisco, formed a joint venture last year to develop a cellulosic ethanol business using corn stover or switchgrass in Tennessee, which has provided grants to the plant and pays farmers to plant switchgrass. (It takes three years to develop the first group)  DuPont–whose Pioneer division hired me to moderate a panel at BIO–and Genencor have committed to a three-year investment of $140 million. They obviously have the capacity to invest more if needed.

They’ve also got a track record.  DuPont and Genencor got together nearly 15 years ago to research the process that now produces a renewable material known as bio-PDO, which is made from corn starch, that goes into carpets, textiles and shampoos. It’s one of the big successes of the bio-materials biz.