A common thread runs through the history of the waste-to-energy business: Investors get the sequence wrong. Entrepreneurs' energy gets expended, and capital is converted to waste. Fulcrum BioEnergy took a different tack, by spending $100 million, and a decade, figuring out exactly what works best. In 2019, it will be gathering municipal solid waste--which costs next to nothing--and converting it into Jet A, the fuel that powers airliners and currently sells for about $5.20 a gallon. Even for this notoriously challenging sector, that math works.
Fulcrum, which is based in Pleasanton, California, didn't set out to build a better mousetrap, says co-founder and president-CEO Jim Macias. It set out to assemble all the best available mousetrap parts--and de-risk the business model. "We're the only company that's not tied to a single piece of technology," he says. "Our financial partners took a different approach--that the better business model is to be an integrator." Macias is a pretty good integrator himself: His investors include Waste Management and Waste Connections on the front end, and jet-fuel customers United Airlines and Cathay Pacific on the back. For the airlines, Fulcrum hedges against rising fuel costs. For the Department of Defense--which awarded Fulcrum a $70 million grant--it offsets supply risk.
At Fulcrum's first large-scale feedstock-processing facility, near Reno, Nevada, trailers offload redolent cargo into large bays where specialized equipment strips out inorganic waste--think plastics. It's sort of reverse recycling. Fulcrum uses municipal solid waste as a source because its supply is more predictable--indeed, its supply is inevitable--than that of biomass sources typically used by comparable companies, such as corn or switchgrass.
The organic material goes into a vessel, where it breaks apart under intense pressure and heat--basically the same process the earth used to make petroleum, minus the dead dinosaurs and a few hundred million years of processing time. (This gasification process is licensed from yet another investing partner, ThermoChem Recovery International.)
Gasification converts the carbon and hydrogen in garbage to a full-fledged hydrocarbon, the chemical basis of oil and natural gas. The synthetic fuel--"syngas"--that is produced, scrubbed of sulfur and particulates, is then refined into jet fuel. Currently, Fulcrum is using investor partners to handle that last step, but it just broke ground on its own refinery, also in Reno.
Macias was becoming a dinosaur of sorts himself: He worked for PG&E for two decades. But rather than go extinct, he evolved, joining independent power producer Calpine at the dawn of electricity deregulation in the 1990s. There, he helped founder Peter Cartwright stamp out a fleet of efficient power plants across the country using a standardized design. He's following a similar blueprint with Fulcrum. Having searched far and wide for the best processes, in every phase, to create the ideal waste-to-energy plant, he aims to quickly scale by using its design to build cookie-cutter plants.
Fulcrum has plans to build plants in Chicago--where United Airlines is headquartered--as well as Houston and Seattle and in the U.K. Airline traffic is forecast to double by 2036. You might say Macias's business is ready to take off.