“The key concern is that there is no time to wait. We must act now and while countries are starting to make changes to drive a low carbon future, more needs to be done quickly. We need to take more risks and move more quickly. We need to realize the bigger risk is not acting quickly enough”. Jennifer Holmgren talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this exclusive interview, the CEO of LanzaTech gives us her point of view regarding the climate crisis and the ‘carbonsmart’ revolution that the Illinois-based company is leading at global scale.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
LanzaTech continues to make strides in scaling up its alcohol to jet (ATJ) platform. What are your next steps in 2020?
In 2020, you will see LanzaTech and PNNL (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, editor’s note) make progress in commercializing the ATJ technology across the world with the goal of starting commercial production in 2021. The facility in the US is expected to come on-line first, thanks to the continued support of the US Department of Energy for a demonstration-scale integrated biorefinery at LanzaTech’s Freedom Pines site in Soperton, Georgia. This facility will produce 10 million gallons per year of jet and diesel fuel.
In Japan, strategic LanzaTech investor Mitsui & Co., ANA and JXTG Energy have been selected by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) – a prominent Japanese public research and development body – to conduct a feasibility study to establish a sustainable domestic supply chain for ATJ, key first step to achieving full commercial deployment of our platform in Japan.
In the UK, LanzaTech is a shortlisted applicant for a grant from the UK Department for Transport (DfT) through the Fuels for Flight and Freight Competition (F4C). This grant would support deployment of the technology in the UK, and LanzaTech has been working closely with the DfT as they assess the technology and its sustainability profile, and we hope that 2020 will be the year we can move forward on this first facility in the UK.
In addition, by growing our ethanol base through continued construction of commercial LanzaTech ethanol plants throughout the world, we will be growing the ethanol pool that can be used as feedstock for these ATJ plants. An exciting year ahead.
Today it seems that there is more awareness of the serious problems linked to the climate crisis both in public opinion and in policy makers. What is your opinion about this?
Absolutely. We are very fortunate that a global youth movement from Fridays4Future to Extinction Rebellion to This is Zero Hour have sensitized everyone to the urgency of acting on climate. Once that started, the news responded with more and more horrific images of our planet on fire, which has led to a realization that this is not a problem our children will face but one that we are facing now. All these things are starting to coalescence into a view that we are in a climate crisis. The key issue remains, however, what are we going to do about this and how quickly will we be able to deploy solutions? My fear is that we are not yet translating this awareness into broad and immediate action and the longer we wait the harder it will be to reduce emissions to safe levels.
We are also beginning to talk with greater interest about the great potential of the so-called CO2 economy. What are the new frontiers for an innovative company like LanzaTech?
We like to think of this new carbon economy as the third industrial revolution. Technology is unlocking new C resources that do not require us to continue to use fresh fossil resources. Consumer brands are now rethinking their supply chains. Waste carbon is now becoming the new feedstock and we are super excited to be part of this change. We have been recycling carbon emissions to make ethanol at commercial scale in China and are building other facilities that enable large scale production of this recycled carbon ethanol. We are also scaling technology to convert that ethanol into aviation fuel and into everyday goods like packaging and fibers. Carbon recycling is a key part of this shift and with developments in electrolysis and increased access to low cost renewable power, all carbon can be recycled. The sky’s the limit!
LanzaTech is the demonstration that the circular bioeconomy moves on a global scale: set up in New Zealand, today it is based in the USA and has plants and businesses in Asia and Europe. What differentiates the major geographical areas today in supporting the circular bioeconomy and sustainability in general?
There is a general trend towards supportive policies globally which specifically include recycled carbon and similar circular economy approaches. For example, India, China and the EU have designed policies that enable fuels from recycled carbon. The USA is focusing on carbon tax credits for the reuse of gaseous carbon oxides and the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard is the benchmark for policy that supports outcomes over specific technology approaches. This is something we should be striving for around the world, technology neutral, outcomes based, legislation. All these policies enable a move towards the circular economy. I would add that in countries where the effects of climate change are visible (India and China) in terms of air quality, there is an acceleration to policy and support mechanisms that enable the bioeconomy. The key concern is that there is no time to wait. We must act now and while countries are starting to make changes to drive a low carbon future, more needs to be done quickly. We need to take more risks and move more quickly. We need to realize the bigger risk is not acting quickly enough.
Do you think that today the time is ripe to introduce a carbon tax on a global level? And how should it be structured in your opinion?
A carbon tax is long overdue. It needs to be meaningful and some have even suggested it needs to be higher initially and then decrease to spur action. When considering a carbon tax, we need to remember that we have a false impression of the cost of the incumbents in the energy space today. They are not cheaper than cleaner alternatives when you take externalities and the subsidies embedded in the production system and distribution infrastructure into account. However, any type of carbon tax must take climate justice into account. We cannot afford to make life even harder for developing nations or for the poorest among us. Therefore, some type of luxury carbon tax approach or carbon dividend should be part of the thinking.