Z Energy: Looking for fuel alternatives

Z Energy boss Mike Bennetts wouldn't care too much if he didn't have to sell petrol.

"We have to be economically sustainable so we've got to make money and a return for our shareholders, we equally have to be environmentally sustainable so in some senses the two go together," he says. "If we don't change the company in the near and the long term we won't be here to make money."

The company that sells just under a third of the country's transport fuel is ambivalent about what it puts through its pumps. It has moved to hybrid cars for managers, a change he says is saving money.


"We acknowledge climate change and acknowledge the products we sell are a major contributor to climate change," says Bennetts, a 25-year BP veteran before joining the company that was to become Z four years ago.

"We're so often seen as being in the middle of the problem - I want us to be in the middle of the solution."

Z has a 17 per cent stake in Marsden Pt through NZ Refining, but unlike the oil majors it does not have billions of dollars invested in the upstream industry - oil exploration and production.

"We're not bound by producing oil so thinking we'd better prolong the market as long as we can. We don't care what we sell as long as it's the most important transport fuel for our customers."

Bennetts says the alternatives are not going to come into the mainstream quickly; according to the research Z has done it could be five to 10 years before biofuels are widely available and longer still before electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles make a significant impact.

Z - partly owned by the NZ Superannuation Fund and utilities investor Infratil - is about to start building a $21 million biodiesel plant at Wiri to process tallow from the meat industry.

The plant will produce 20 million litres of biodiesel a year, which can be blended with traditional diesel. Although that's a fraction of the 1 billion litres of diesel the company sells annually, Z could double biodiesel output if it can do what others haven't and make the venture commercially viable. That means minimising capital costs, charging a premium for the product and maximising the advantage Z has as an established player with a nationwide distribution network.

Longer term, Z has formed a partnership with pulp and paper company Norske Skog to develop a pilot plant that would use second generation biofuels technology to process wood waste from forestry, to convert into a form of crude oil that could be refined into petrol, diesel and potentially jet fuel.

"In the absence of a government directive or consumers losing their patience, the only way that things will change is if people like us make the early steps needed," says Bennetts.

There are signs of declining petrol demand.

Fuel consumption peaked at 4.2 billion barrels a year in 2007 and is estimated by Z and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to fall to 3.6 billion barrels within the next 10 years.

Light vehicle travel per person has fallen 6 per cent since 2005, partly due to improved broadband connections and increased petrol prices.

But diesel use is increasing, and while its consumption is historically pegged to GDP growth, it is now surpassing that.

Bennetts says the falling use of cars will continue, with teens waiting longer to get their licences and public transport improving. The company is also pushing conservation. It is developing its own technology that helps commercial drivers to drive more economically, using sensors and smartphones.

Z has calculated it could cope with a reduction of up to 20 per cent in overall volumes if it was able to improve its fuel margin by 4c to 5c a litre.

Bennetts says the company is also cleaning up its own backyard, moving to a fleet of 30 hybrid Toyota Camrys which are saving the company about $100,000 a year. It is installing more efficient LED lighting in forecourts throughout the country and has a programme to reduce waste going to landfills.

"Companies are scared about talking around sustainability," Bennetts says.

"[But] often the early steps are about making money because you're often just taking out waste or inefficiency."

- Grant Bradley
LanzaTech: Turning pollutants into fuel

New Zealand-founded LanzaTech says its biofuel is on the brink of commercial production.

The firm is now based in Chicago but maintains its research unit here and says it is in the engineering design phase of a commercial plant to convert waste gases from a Chinese steel mill to fuel and chemicals.

LanzaTech chief executive Jennifer Holmgren says that by the end of the year it hopes to produce commercial quantities of ethanol and chemicals used in the rubber industry.

The company has been running for nearly a decade. It has a partnership with Shanghai Baosteel and in 2012 a pilot proved successful, using microbial gas fermentation technology to convert steelworks coal gas and other industrial exhaust gases rich in carbon monoxide into ethanol and other chemicals.

Holmgren says she can't disclose the location of the planned commercial plant.

LanzaTech's long-running partnership with the Virgin Atlantic airline to produce biofuel for aviation is also progressing well, Holmgren says.

Synthetic kerosene produced by LanzaTech's process would be blended with traditional aviation gas and is being assessed for certification by the American Society for Testing and Materials

"Our goal is to make this fuel have the same price as conventional kerosene plus the cost of carbon. We make the assumption there is going to be a cost of carbon," says Holmgren.

This year LanzaTech raised US$60 million ($70 million) from a range of investors including Japanese industrial conglomerate Mitsui, German industrial giant Siemens and several of the firm's existing investors: US billionaire clean-tech investor Vinod Khosla's vehicle Khosla Ventures, Warehouse founder Stephen Tindall's K1W1 fund, Qiming Venture Partners and the Malaysian Life Sciences Capital Fund.

Holmgren says strategic investors are more likely to be sinking money into clean tech, rather than traditional venture capitalists who are these days attracted to Silicon Valley.

"The appetite for clean tech by most [venture capitalists] has actually been reduced over the past few years. People tend to invest in IT type of things."

Asked about a possible sharemarket listing in New Zealand, Holmgren says there are no immediate plans.

"The first step is to build our first commercial unit. You've got to make sure you're getting real revenues."

The Obama Administration's push for a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is a big opportunity for LanzaTech.

While there will be challenges getting the proposal into law, she says the state-by-state approach is clever.

In a message to staff she said while petroleum, coal and natural gas will not be displaced, "we can choose to augment these with sustainable sources which can help support the globe's ever growing demand for energy."

- Grant Bradley
PowerSmart: Energy from the sun

The cliche is true: the future really is looking bright for solar power company PowerSmart. The Tauranga business has just won two contracts totalling $30 million to set up solar power systems in the Pacific Island nations of Tuvalu and Cook Islands.

The contracts follow a successful 2012 project in Tokelau, where the company, working alongside the New Zealand Government, installed solar power on the three atolls, making Tokelau the first country to be 100 per cent solar powered and saving $900,000 a year in diesel costs.

PowerSmart managing director Mike Bassett-Smith says success in Tokelau boosted their bid for the two further contracts, but it was still a tough selection process. Both projects are under way, with work planned to begin on site this year and completion in early next year. Each is almost twice the size of the Tokelau job.

"Experience certainly matters but all these projects are open and internationally competitive. We certainly don't get any special treatment other than that we have references and experience, and that the ministry [of Foreign Affairs and Trade] have worked with us before. But aside from that we do a normal internationally competitive tender process."

He says solar power's future looks positive, with prices becoming more affordable for everyday New Zealanders.

Solar power is "certainly a lot more affordable now than it was, say, five years ago. I think people are much better educated now about solar power as well, and about how effective it is as an energy solution."

Increasing production of solar panels, as well as solar panel companies having their own silicon supplies, has pushed prices for solar energy "through the floor", says Bassett-Smith.

He sees more changes ahead. "I think the big step changes really are going to be growing awareness of solar power and the ability to take control of electricity costs, as well as eventually being able to store more and more of this energy."

The six-year-old, privately owned company has also carried out private contracts in countries such as Fiji.

"We're continually looking to deliver better results but in between that, it's pedal to the metal. Until the guys in each of the Cook Islands and Tuvalu sites are happy with their system and it's working, we're not that fussed about celebrating."

- Holly Ryan
We Compost: Making waste a resource

Spending all day collecting compost bins wouldn't appeal to most people, but We Compost founder Steve Rickerby insists he's living the dream.

"From my point of view, if you can grow a business that has a net positive impact on the environment and employs people as well, that's the aim really. I couldn't imagine doing anything else now," Rickerby says.

He was working for an insurance company in 2009 when he realised the company had bins for organic waste and food scraps but there was no collection process, so at the end of the day the bins would be added to the main rubbish collection, negating the good intent of sorting the waste.

Rickerby says he realised there was a niche in the market, left his job and started organic collection company We Compost. Now in its fifth year, the company has several hundred customers, from cafes such as Little and Friday and The Food Truck, through to big corporates such as Vodafone, Chorus, insurance companies and banks.

"When I first imagined what I was going to be doing, I never really imagined it would get as big as it has," Rickerby says.

The company provides the bins, which it collects and delivers to a commercial composting plant where the waste is processed. Customers pay for the bins to be provided and collected, in the same way they pay for regular rubbish collections.

Rickerby now collects almost 80,000 litres of compostable waste a week. Since January 2012, the company has diverted almost 1 million kg of waste from landfill, equivalent to about 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Social media has played a major role in the company's growth. Rickerby says a Z Energy staff member found We Compost on Facebook and signed up the service station. Since then, word has spread and Rickerby now collects bins from 20 Z stations around Auckland.

It isn't all easy, however, with strong competition from multinationals such as Chinese-owned Transpacific Industries.

"It's a huge market. The waste industry in Auckland alone is a billion-dollar market and it's 80 per cent controlled by overseas companies which I think is crazy. I'd really love to build a decent-sized Kiwi company to get in there and be competitive."

But the company is doubling revenue year on year and Rickerby is happy seeing the change in attitudes to composting.

We Compost is actively seeking investors to allow Rickerby to focus on growth.

- Holly Ryan