As part of a broader push on part of the aviation industry to reduce its carbon footprint, Airbus has conducted the first ever flight of its giant A380 jumbo jet using 100 percent biofuel. This is the third Airbus aircraft to fly using the sustainable fuel made up of primarily cooking oil, as the company works to certify the technology by the end of the decade.
The aircraft featured in the groundbreaking flight is the Airbus ZEROe Demonstrator, an A380 adapted for use as a flying testbed and one the company plans to also use to test out hydrogen combustion jet engines.
For this particular outing, the aircraft was loaded up with 27 tonnes of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), made mostly with cooking oil and waste fats. This powered the A380’s Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine across a three-hour test flight out of the Blagnac Airport in Toulouse France on March 28, with a second flight then carrying it all the way to Nice Airport on March 29.
This demonstration follows successful flights of the Airbus A350 and the Airbus A319neo single-aisle plane using SAF last year. Using the biofuel to now power the world’s largest passenger jet marks another step forward for the testing program, as Airbus aspires to bring the world’s first zero-emission aircraft to market by 2035.
Airbus isn’t alone in pursuing cleaner aviation with the help of cooking oil. Way back in 2012, Boeing made the first biofuel-powered Pacific crossing in its 787 Dreamliner using a mix of regular jet fuel and fuel derived mainly from cooking oil. In 2014, it even opened up a biofuel production plant in China based to ensure a consistent supply.
In emphasizing the potential of SAF, Airbus refers to the Waypoint 2050 report put together by collaboration of aviation experts to outline how the industry can achieve decarbonization by midway through the century. That report identifies the deploying of SAF as the single largest opportunity to meet these goals, with the potential to deliver between 53 and 71 percent of the required carbon reductions.
As it stands, all of Airbus’ aircraft are certified to fly with a 50 percent SAF-kerosene blend. Airbus aims to achieve certification for 100 percent SAF use by the end of the decade.
Nick has been writing and editing at New Atlas for over six years, where he has covered everything from distant space probes to self-driving cars to oddball animal science. He previously spent time at The Conversation, Mashable and The Santiago Times, earning a Masters degree in communications from Melbourne’s RMIT University along the way.
SAF is a biofuel used to power aircraft that has similar properties to conventional jet fuel but with a smaller carbon footprint. Depending on the feedstock and technologies used to produce it, SAF can reduce life cycle GHG emissions dramatically compared to conventional jet fuel. Some emerging SAF pathways even have a net-negative GHG footprint.
SAFs lower carbon intensity makes it an important solution for reducing aviation GHGs, which make up 9%–12% of U.S. transportation GHG emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
An estimated 1 billion dry tons of biomass can be collected sustainably each year in the United States, enough to produce 50–60 billion gallons of low-carbon biofuels. These resources include:
Other fats, oils, and greases
Wood mill waste
Municipal solid waste streams
Wet wastes (manures, wastewater treatment sludge)
Dedicated energy crops.
This vast resource contains enough feedstock to meet the projected fuel demand of the U.S. aviation industry, additional volumes of drop-in low carbon fuels for use in other modes of transportation, and produce high-value bioproducts and renewable chemicals.
Growing, sourcing, and producing SAF from renewable and waste resources can create new economic opportunities in farming communities, improve the environment, and even boost aircraft performance.
By growing biomass crops for SAF production, American farmers can earn more money during off seasons by providing feedstocks to this new market, while also securing benefits for their farms like reducing nutrient losses and improving soil quality.Biomass crops can control erosion and improve water quality and quantity.
They can also increase biodiversity and store carbon in the soil, which can deliver on-farm benefits and environmental benefits across the country. Producing SAF from wet wastes, like manure and sewage sludge, reduces pollution pressure on watersheds, while also keeping potent methane gas—a key contributor to climate change—out of the atmosphere.
How rural communities will fare in the battle for electric vehicles funds comes down to a sort of chicken and egg scenario, officials said.
Without acceptance of electric vehicles (EVs) in rural areas, federal funding for charging stations will go elsewhere. But without the charging stations, fewer rural residents will buy electric vehicles.
David Adkins, executive director and CEO of the Council of State Governments, an organization that provides states with research focusing on public policy issues, said if his family in rural Kansas is any indication, electric vehicles are gaining traction in rural communities.
“I’m confident that rural America will increasingly prioritize the need for EV charging stations once the electrified Ford F 150 becomes the truck of choice for farmers and ranchers,” he said. “And Ford will only be able to sell those trucks if charging capacity is ubiquitous.”
Ford and startup Rivian are already selling electric pickups, and several manufacturers have plans to join the market. Cost will make deployment of charging options in urban centers happen first, but without a nationwide network it will be hard to get commercial EVs in widespread use, he said.
EV charging networks will be necessary for tomorrow’s rural America, he said.
“EV charging stations are the next chapter in rural connectivity,” he said. “Right now the focus is on broadband access which primarily benefits those living and working in rural America. Charging stations on the other hand benefit both local residents and those traveling through rural America.”
Recently, the Biden Administration released “Charging Forward: A Toolkit for Planning and Funding Rural Electric Mobility Infrastructure,” a guide for rural areas to get the most out of the federal funding for the electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
Getting those charging stations into rural areas is important for widespread adoption of EVs, the administration said.
“In rural parts of the country—home to 20 % of Americans and almost 70 % of America’s road miles—EVs can be an especially attractive alternative to conventional vehicles,” the administration wrote in its toolkit. “Rural residents drive more than their urban counterparts, spend more on vehicle fuel and maintenance, and often have fewer alternatives to driving to meet their transportation needs. Over the long run, EVs will help residents of rural areas reduce those costs and minimize the environmental impact of transportation in their communities.”
Ensuring that those charging stations go to rural areas will be a challenge, said U.S. Representative David Scott (D-Georgia), chair of the House Agriculture Committee.
“We are witnessing a point of major research, investment, and adoption of electric vehicles across the country and the world, driven in large part in an effort to mitigate the impacts of climate change,” Scott said at a hearing in January. “As with so many other technological advancements like electrification, broadband, or telephone service, I want to see what can be done to make sure that rural America is not left behind. And to that point, I want to also ensure that the needs of agriculture and rural residents are being considered with these important developments.”
The U.S. DOT said priority in the electric-vehicle charging network will be given to federally designated alternative fuel corridors, primarily located along interstate highways. Nominated by state and local governments, the corridors are highway segments with the infrastructure to support electric-vehicle charging stations, as well as other alternative fuels. The program requires charging stations at 50-mile intervals.
Some states in the American West have expressed concerns about that requirement.
“Western states face a suite of challenges related to planning and siting EV infrastructure, including the unique needs of both underserved and rural communities, vast distances between communities, limited electric grid infrastructure in sparsely populated areas, and a patchwork of federal, state, and private lands ownership boundaries,” the Western Governors Association, comprised of 19 states in the region, wrote in a policy resolution submitted to federal transportation officials in December.
“A number of western states have experienced challenges in meeting these defined metrics due to lacking electric infrastructure and suitable charging locations in sparsely populated areas.”
Part of the same fuel corridor goes through Appalachia, said Janiene Bohannon, director of communications with the Appalachian Regional Council, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. A map of the Electric Vehicle Charging State Location shows all the current electric vehicle charging stations across the country plus the current and proposed charging station corridors.
The number of EV charging stations in Appalachia is growing, she said. More charging stations means more connectivity for Appalachian residents and visitors.
“Bringing EV charging stations to the Appalachian Region will help to reduce its isolation and promote economic growth,” Bohannon said. “Additional electric vehicle charging stations could encourage a greater population that would visit Appalachia.”
Rural communities will have to deal with other larger challenges in installing EV charging stations, Adkins said.
“Another challenge states face in making the conversion to EV vehicles is the way surface transportation is funded,” he said. “The gas tax is currently a primary source of federal and state funding for streets and highways. States will need to update these revenue formulas in order to have funds to pay for infrastructure.”
Picking a technology to install is another obstacle. Tesla, for instance, has a proprietary charger, creating a “VHS v. Betamax-like market-based obstacle,” Adkins said.
“Like with solar, I believe significant subsidies will need to be provided to private sector players in order to build out initial EV charging networks,” he said. “It will be fun to watch how innovation occurs as the number of electric vehicles grows in the next decade.”
Fusion energy is perhaps the longest of long shots. To build a fusion reactor is essentially to create an artificial star. Scientists have been studying the physics of fusion for a century and working to harness the process for decades. Yet almost every time researchers make an advance, the goal posts seem to recede even farther in the distance.
Still, the enormous potential of fusion makes it hard to ignore. It’s a technology that could safely provide an immense and steady torrent of electricity, harnessing abundant fuel made from seawater to ignite the same reaction that powers the sun. It would produce no greenhouse gases and minimal waste compared to conventional energy sources.
With global average temperatures rising and energy demands growing, the quest for fusion is timelier than ever: It could help solve both these problems at the same time. But despite its promise, fusion is often treated as a scientific curiosity rather than a must-try moonshot — an actual, world-changing solution to a massive problem.
The latest episode of Unexplainable, Vox’s podcast about unsolved mysteries in science, asks scientists about their decades-long pursuit of a star in a bottle. They talk about their recent progress and why fusion energy remains such a challenge. And they make the case for not only continuing fusion research, but aggressively expanding and investing in it — even if it won’t light up the power grid anytime soon.
With some of the most powerful machines ever built, scientists are trying to refine delicate, subatomic mechanics to achieve a pivotal milestone: getting more energy out of a fusion reaction than they put in. Researchers say they are closer than ever.
Fusion is way more powerful than any other energy source we have
Nuclear fission is what happens when big atoms like uranium and plutonium split apart and release energy. These reactions powered the very first atomic bombs, and today they power conventional nuclear reactors.
Fusion is even more potent. It’s what happens when the nuclei of small atoms stick together, fusing to create a new element and releasing energy. The most common form is two hydrogen atoms fusing to create helium.
The reason that fusion generates so much energy is that the new element weighs a smidgen less than the sum of its parts. That tiny bit of lost matter is converted into energy according to Albert Einstein’s famous formula, E = mc2. “E” stands for energy and “m” stands for mass.
The last part of the formula is “c,” a constant that measures the speed of light — 300,000 kilometers per second, which is then squared. So there’s an enormous multiplier for matter that’s converted into energy, making fusion an extraordinarily powerful reaction.
These basics are well understood, and researchers are confident that it’s possible to harness it in a useful way, but so far, it’s been elusive.
“It’s a weird thing, because we absolutely know that the fundamental theory works. We’ve seen it demonstrated,” said Carolyn Kuranz, a plasma physicist at the University of Michigan. “But trying to do it in a lab has provided us a lot of challenges.”
For a demonstration, one only has to look up at the sun during the day (but not directly, because you’ll hurt your eyes). Even from 93 million miles away, our nearest star generates enough energy to heat up the Earth through the vacuum of space.
But the sun has an advantage that we don’t have here on Earth: It is very, very big. One of the difficulties with fusion is that atomic nuclei — the positively charged cores of atoms — normally repel each other. To overcome that repulsion and spark fusion, you have to get the atoms moving really fast in a confined space, which makes collisions more likely.
A star like the sun, which is about 333,000 times the mass of Earth, generates gravity that accelerates atoms toward its center — heating them up, confining them, and igniting fusion. The fusion reactions then provide the energy to speed up other atomic nuclei and trigger even more fusion reactions.
What makes fusion energy so tricky
Imitating the sun on Earth is a tall order. Humans have been able to trigger fusion, but in ways that are uncontrolled, like in thermonuclear weapons (sometimes called hydrogen bombs). Fusion has also been demonstrated in laboratories, but under conditions that consume far more energy than the reaction produces. The reaction generally requires creating a high-energy state of matter known as plasma, which has quirks and behaviors that scientists are still trying to understand.
To make fusion useful, scientists need to trigger it in a controlled way that yields far more energy than they put in. That energy can then be used to boil water, spin a turbine, or generate electricity. Teams around the world are studying different ways to accomplish this, but the approaches tend to fall into two broad categories.
One involves using magnets to contain the plasma. This is the approach used by ITER, the world’s largest fusion project, currently under construction in southern France.
The other category involves confining the fusion fuel and compressing it in a tiny space with the aid of lasers. This is the approach used by the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Replicating a star requires doing this research at massive scales, so fusion experiments often involve the most powerful scientific instruments ever built. ITER’s central solenoid, for example, can generate a magnetic force strong enough to hoist an aircraft carrier 6 feet out of the water.
Building hardware to withstand these extreme conditions is its own scientific and engineering challenge. Managing such massive experiments has also been a struggle. ITER started with an initial cost estimate of 6.6 billion euros, which has since more than tripled. It began construction in 2007 and its first experiments are set to begin in 2025.
An upside to the intricacy of fusion reactions is that it is almost impossible to cause a runaway reaction or meltdown of the sort that have devastated fission power plants like Chernobyl. If a fusion reactor is disrupted, the reaction rapidly fizzles out. In addition, the main “waste” product of hydrogen fusion is helium, an inert gas. The process can induce some reactor materials to become radioactive, but the radioactivity is much lower, and the quantity of hazardous waste is far smaller, compared to conventional nuclear power plants. So nuclear fusion energy could become one of the safest sources of electricity.
For policymakers, investing in an expensive research project that may not yield fruit for decades, if at all, is a tough sell. Scientific progress doesn’t always keep up with political timelines: A politician who greenlights a fusion project might not even live to see it become a viable energy source — so they certainly won’t be able to brag about their success by the time the next election rolls around.
So from its basic physics to government budgets, fusion energy has a lot working against it.
Fusion energy should be treated as a solution, not just an experiment
Working in fusion’s favor, however, are scientists and engineers who think it’s not just possible, but inevitable.
“I’m a true believer. I do think we can solve this problem,” said Troy Carter, a plasma physicist at the University of California Los Angeles. “It will take time, but the real issue is getting the resources brought to bear on these issues.”
The journey toward fusion has yielded benefits for other fields, particularly in plasma physics, which is used extensively in manufacturing semiconductors for electronics. “Plasma processing is one of the things that make your iPhones possible,” said Kathryn McCarthy, a fusion researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
And despite the hurdles, there have been some real advances. Researchers at NIF reported last summer that they achieved their best results yet — 1.3 megajoules of output from 1.9 megajoules of input — putting them closer than ever to energy-positive fusion. “We’re on the threshold of ignition,” said Tammy Ma, a plasma physicist at NIF.
To break out of its rut, fusion will need to be more than a science experiment. Just as space exploration is more than astronomy, fusion is much more than physics. It should be a leading tool in the fight against the world’s most urgent problems, from climate change to lifting people out of poverty.
At the same time, the window for limiting climate change is slamming shut, and electricity and heat production remain the dominant sources of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. To meet one of the goals of the Paris climate agreement — limiting warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius this century — the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half or more by 2030, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Many of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters are also aiming to zero out their contributions to climate change by the middle of the century. Making such drastic cuts in emissions means phasing out fossil fuels as quickly as possible and rapidly deploying much cleaner sources of energy.
The technologies of today may not be up to the task of resolving the tension between the need for more energy and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. A problem like climate change is an argument for placing bets on all kinds of far-reaching energy solutions, but fusion may be the technology with the highest upside. And on longer time scales, closer to the 2040s and 2050s, it could be a real solution.
With more investment from governments and the private sector, scientists could speed up their pace of progress and experiment with even more approaches to fusion. In the US, where much of the research is conducted at national laboratories, this would mean convincing your representatives in Congress to get excited about fusion and ultimately to spend more money. Lawmakers can also encourage private companies to get into the game by, for example, pricing carbon dioxide emissions to create incentives for clean energy research.
The key, according to Carter, is to ensure support for fusion remains steady. “Given the level of importance here and the amount of money invested in energy, the current investment in fusion is a drop in the bucket,” Carter said. “You could imagine ramping it up orders of magnitude to get the job done.”
He added that funding for fusion doesn’t have to cannibalize resources from other clean energy technologies, like wind, solar, and nuclear power. “We need to invest across the board,” Carter said.
For now, the big fusion experiments at NIF and ITER will continue inching forward. At NIF, scientists will continue refining their process and steadily work their way up toward energy-positive fusion. ITER is scheduled to begin operation in 2025 and start hydrogen fusion experiments in 2035.
Artificial star power might not illuminate the world for decades, but the foundations have to be laid now through research, development, and deployment. It may very well become humanity’s crowning achievement, more than a century in the making.
Umair Irfan covers climate change, energy, and Covid-19 vaccine development for Vox. He is also a contributor to Science Friday. Before joining Vox, Umair was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News in Washington, DC, where he covered health and climate change, science, and energy policy.
The sales pitch for hydrogen is heating up, although not as much as the Hindenburg did in 1937. In the UK, there are even advertisements for the fuel on the London Underground, which is quite an odd thing to see next to posters about the latest iPhone and vitamin supplements.
It’s not like the average employee on their way to work is going to rush out and buy some H2 before reaching the office. No, this is more of a sign that there is a PR campaign to implant hydrogen in the public imagination as the savior of all our lifestyles in the face of climate change.
For a certain type of tabloid-reading consumer, it’s working, with many claiming they won’t buy battery-electric vehicles because they are “waiting for hydrogen”. The bigger problem is that governments are listening too and it’s not necessarily such a good thing. Recently, the EU has made a pledge to move to 2.6% renewable fuels such as green hydrogen (produced from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar) and replace 50% of grey hydrogen (produced from methane) with green hydrogen as well.
This would be all well and good if we had abundant renewable energy to call upon, but we don’t. Research organization Transport & Environment has found that this would put undue pressure on the wind and solar we have when it is direly needed for other applications.
The UK government is also putting a lot of emphasis on hydrogen, with some dramatic numbers about how many jobs could be created and how much the industry could be worth by 2050 (100,000 jobs and £13 billion / $17 billion). The UK has already switched a lot of its generation grid to renewables, particularly wind, which sometimes now supplies over half the country’s electricity. But that still doesn’t mean there will be loads of surplus to be used for producing hydrogen. The bullish employment and market value predictions appear to hide some major obstacles.
This threatens to derail our route to decarbonization more than ease it. The arguments against hydrogen as our lord and savior are increasingly well known, and mostly revolve around the laws of physics. Hydrogen may be abundant in the universe but harnessing it for use is not so easy. Although there are some ways of harvesting hydrogen as a byproduct of other processes, it usually must be extracted from fossil fuels or electrolyzing water.
The latter is the truly green option but takes plenty of energy and loses about a third of the power input compared to just sending the electricity over the grid. You lose even more using fuel cells to convert the hydrogen back to electricity, and even more with hydrogen-derived synthetic fuels. Only mild improvements in efficiency are expected over the coming decades, too.
The chief thing that hydrogen has in its favor is convenience and that seems to be central tenet of the cult surrounding it. Hydrogen fans are fixated on the fact that it takes five minutes to replenish an H2 vehicle, just like fossil fuel. Even more enticingly, evangelists are being fed the story that they will soon be able to use a hydrogen-based synthetic fuel in the cars they are driving right now, with no change necessary.
These ideas appear to have been propagated to delay the uptake of battery-electric vehicles. In Europe at least, it doesn’t seem to be working yet, with every month an improvement on the last for EV sales. In the UK, sales of BEVs in November were twice what they were in November 2020, which in their turn were twice as much as November 2019. In contrast, there are just a few hundred hydrogen cars in the whole of Britain. Certainly, in the car industry at least, if hydrogen is coming to save us, it better hurry up before it’s too late.
The problem with all the unrealistically positive rhetoric about hydrogen for cars is that the fuel type does have a place in the decarbonized energy economy. But its inefficiency must be balanced against its convenience and where direct electrification is not an option.
Michael Liebreich of BloombergNEF has created a handy pyramid of the relative value of different hydrogen use scenarios, with applications like fertilizer being essential, but any form of transport from trucks, coaches, and short-haul aviation downwards being better served by batteries, or other forms of electrification. The essential hydrogen applications are called “no regret” scenarios, a phrase coined by German think-tank Agora Energiewende, because their need is uncontroversial, whereas transportation is already proving to be more efficiently served by batteries.
The cult of hydrogen being the future has merely provoked a massively negative reaction from those who are already driving BEVs and realize that they are not just the future, but here and now. That detracts from the uses where hydrogen does have a benefit, for example as a portable energy source for areas where there is no electrical grid. The Extreme E race series uses hydrogen generators as a clean way of creating electrical power to charge its battery-powered SUV race cars.
The problem is that the underlying battle is between two types of energy provider – electricity grid suppliers versus oil and gas companies. The latter are generally in favor of hydrogen because currently most of it is made out of their methane or coal. They also want to maintain their financial model of forcing consumers and industrial customers to go somewhere to pay for fuel, rather than having it supplied to their homes and businesses. Electricity providers, in contrast, want to sell more electricity wherever it can be supplied.
The question should be “which is greenest?” The main component of this is that governments realize where hydrogen is best used and invest accordingly. The EU is refocusing its hydrogen push away from personal mobility, but not transportation entirely. There are some valid possibilities here, but in all except some very specialized situations hydrogen has almost no reason to be used.
Cars are very much not one of those valid possibilities, which is why those who still promote this are starting to sound like a cult. As the Agora Energiewende report concludes, “Just a decade ago, fuel-cell electric cars seemed to be the future of the automotive industry. Today, the dream is over.”
EBay at its very core pioneered the circular economy — of finding new homes for treasures that might otherwise have ended up at the dump. “Avoiding items going into a landfill is very important to our customers,” says Steve Priest, CFO of eBay. “Driving the circular economy is part of everything we do.” But finding new shelves for Beanie Babies is just a small component in eBay’s sustainability efforts, which prioritize slashing greenhouse gas emissions.
In eBay’s case, these are mostly tied to electricity used to power vast data centers. Since 2017 eBay has cut its carbon emissions by 29% to 88,000 tons per year. The e-commerce giant became carbon neutral this year, and is aiming to achieve a 100% renewable electricity supply for all its offices and data centers by 2025.
This goal might actually be attainable in the next few years as eBay’s biggest clean energy projects yet come online. The White Mesa Wind Project in Texas (a joint venture with Apple, Sprint and Samsung) began operating this year, producing 75 peak megawatts for the four companies, enough to power 20,000 homes.
Meanwhile the Ventress Solar Project in Louisiana, a virtual purchase power agreement between eBay, McDonalds and BP’s Lightsource division, will generate 345 MW. “We collaborate with our tech peers when some sustainability issues come up, where banding together makes more sense,” says eBay’s chief sustainability officer Renee Morin.
Such efforts have earned eBay the no. 11 spot on our inaugural Forbes Green Growth 50 list. Using emissions data from Sustainalytics and financial data from FactSet Research Systems, we honed in on U.S. companies with market caps greater than $5 billion, that started with more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2017, and have since successfully reduced their emissions while simultaneously growing profitability (as measured by an absolute increase in net income or operating income from 2017-2020).
Going in, we figured these criteria would produce a list of more than 100 companies. But green growth is harder than it looks — both Weyerhaeuser and Edison International, ranking no. 21 and no. 10 on our list, grew earnings less than 2% since 2017.
Is there a connection between cutting carbon emissions and boosting earnings? eBay’s Priest thinks we’ve reached the point where companies that don’t care about green will find it nearly impossible to deliver growth. “Customers want to be associated with corporations that take their environmental responsibilities very seriously. Those that do will continue to drive loyalty from their customer base.”
This is a strategic emphasis echoed by Stephan Tanda, CEO of Aptar, which took the no. 1 spot on the Green Growth 50. Aptar makes myriad drug delivery systems and dispensing products for consumer goods, especially foods and cosmetics. “We look at everything we do through a sustainability lens.” Most of Aptar’s facilities in Europe are already certified landfill free. By the end of the year Aptar is looking to achieve “80% disposal avoidance.”
It’s a business that involves reconciling contradictions — most of their products are plastic, which he says actually has a pretty low carbon footprint relative to alternative containers. A new Aptar product is a “monomaterial” lotion pump with no metal parts, entirely recyclable.
Consumer demand for such new products is arguably more impactful than the kind of government policy circus on display at the recent COP26 meetings in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Governments don’t impact what we do that much. Consumers and patients and customers demand what we do,” says Tanda. They will pay for the carbon transition because it is what they want. Listening to the consumers is how Tanda aims to “future proof our business.”
That approach has worked for electricity giant AES, which landed no. 15 on the Green Growth 50 list after reducing emissions by 22%, replacing coal-fired power plants with wind, solar and batteries — “a winning combination that can decarbonize 90% of the grid,” says Chris Shelton, president of AES Next. Because the costs of renewables kept going down, they were able to shift customers over under a “green, blend and extend” program.
AES also operates a kind of inhouse venture capital operation. Its Fluence utility-scale battery joint venture with Siemens recently went public and now sports a $6 billion market cap — the company behind some of the biggest battery installations in the world.
There used to be a large group of companies “in denial” about mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. “That group is vanishing fast,” with companies moving over to the “bargaining” group, where they want to know the minimum they have to do to get by and keep activists off their back — that’s the insight of Chris Romer, cofounder of Project Canary, which installs laser-based sensors at industrial sites to monitor methane leakages.
The landmark ESG moment, he says, was last year’s ExxonMobil annual meeting, where shareholders voted in more green-friendly board members. There’s no going back. Romer says manufacturers can already earn multiples of their monitoring and certification costs by selling “green” products at a premium.
Even on the Green Growth 50, some companies are less enthusiastic than others. Nicotine giant Altria for example, positioned at no. 35 on our list, seems to be doing just enough, having cut emissions by 10% in the studied time period. But according to its most recent sustainability report, Altria’s renewable energy use is just 2.3% of its total, a surprisingly meager ratio.
Altria also demonstrates how hard it can be to stick to a well intentioned program. The company was making great strides toward reducing the amount of waste it was sending to the landfill. In 2018 it nearly hit its 21 million pounds goal. But 2019 wrecked the trend, when Altria delivered 87 million tons to landfill — mostly rubble from a headquarters renovation. Their next challenge: reducing litter from cigarette butts.
Stronger performers included Eli Lilly, which ranked eighth on our list after the pharmaceutical company swapped out old light bulbs for LEDs at three plants, saving 330 mwh per year. And Bristol Myers Squibb, which heats its Munich, Germany office building with 100% geothermal energy, found itself at no. 13. Church & Dwight, parent company of Arm & Hammer, has meanwhile placed third on the list, having achieved its goals of no more PVC in packaging, and offsets carbon emissions by planting millions of trees in the Mississippi River Valley.