Boeing's Julie Felgar on the sustainability craft
The aviation industry accounts for 2 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, which could reach 3 percent by 2050. To defy this version of the future, industry leaders have set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2020 and to halve emissions by 2050.
When it comes to airplanes, that hinges on fossil fuel use. Boeing is targeting this concern in its work toward efficiency in its products, with 75 percent of Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ R&D contributing to fuel efficiency. But the holy grail for Boeing is a "drop-in sustainable aviation biofuel" that could provide an estimated 50 to 80 percent emissions reduction.
As the managing director of environmental strategy and integration at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Julie Felgar is leading this effort to reduce emissions. She also works with policy, interfacing with Boeing’s government relations operations in Washington, D.C., and with other countries.
Felgar describes her external engagement as working closely with Boeing’s competitors in the aeronautic space. "This is an issue where all boats go up on a rising tide," she said. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Sureya Melkonian: You were working in international relations and policy at Boeing before your current position. Why did you make the switch to sustainability?
Julie Felgar: I did work in the Washington, D.C., office of Boeing as the director of international operations and policy. I was primarily focused on the Latin America and the Asia region, and all of the business that we were doing in that area.
When Boeing commercial airplanes really started to focus on what I'd call a revamped environmental strategy, a piece of that related to biofuels and how could we help create this alternative fuel for airlines. Necessarily, it has to be a global solution, but local in implementation.
You have to be able to work internationally and in multiple different countries, and ensure that you can set up a framework within those countries and regions to push for the development of a biofuels industry. I got involved because the environment team came to me in Washington, D.C., and asked me how could I help support their work in my role.
And it was really fun for me to deal with. So not only did it had the positive impacts of "Hey, this is great for the environment," but this is such an innovative space that it's just interesting and fun to talk about.
Melkonian: Were you drawn to environmental or sustainability issues before this?
Felgar: I've always been drawn to environmental work and advocacy. I'm from Africa originally [Zimbabwe] — I grew up in a very nature-rich environment and on a farm.
I'm also the mother of three sons and two stepsons, and I want to make sure I leave behind a place for them that's as good or better than when I was born. For those personal reasons, I was drawn to it. I had not had work experience to date in sustainability or environments specifically until I started to work the topic for Boeing.
Melkonian: Did you find that transition difficult? How did your background in Latin American countries play into the new role?
Felgar: I would say there was a comfort space in it from a political, policy and stakeholder management perspective. They asked me to come and do the job because I know how to manage in that global space of associations and NGOs and multilateral organizations.
The challenging and fun part for me was learning some of the technical aspects as well, particularly in the aviation community around biofuels, the product development that we do — the aerodynamics and aeronautics.
I had to be very inquisitive when I [first] stepped into the job. I just didn't know enough to know what we needed to do at the end of the day. I always say that you really have to be able to understand the entire realm of the space that you're working in. Sometimes that takes a little bit of time, but I'd encourage people not to be daunted by that if they do step in and they haven't been in this type of role before.
Melkonian: What is the focus of Boeing's environmental and sustainability goals? Is it centered around finding alternatives to fossil fuels?
Felgar: We really take a lifecycle approach to how we look at the environmental performance of our products and our facilities. So we're very focused as a company on setting targets for ourselves in terms of energy usage, water usage, zero waste to landfill and ensuring that our buildings are LEED certified going forward.
Then there's also the focus around our product line, and while biofuels is an important strategic lever in addressing our emissions, there [are] other aspects. There's how we design our products, how we look at the aerodynamics of our products, what the engine companies are doing, what we can do to ensure we're using lighter materials on the airplane.
Boeing has a fleet of the most efficient airplanes in the world right now. We typically have double-digit gains in fuel efficiency with each new model of airplanes that we put out.
Melkonian: For biofuels in particular, Boeing is doing a lot of different projects all over the world — South Africa, China, Brazil and United Arab Emirates, among other places. Is this a general search and then you'll hone in on one silver bullet, or are you planning to have a diverse fuel source?
Felgar: For the most part, we're technology agnostic. What we'd like to identify is the potential world of solutions out there and get as many biofuel pathways approved through ASTM [the international fuel standards body] as we can. Having said that, there are certain solutions that we feel will have a better techno-economic result at the end of the day. So do we look at those and focus on them? Yes, but our eyes are wide open, scanning the horizons for the potential for the future.
Melkonian: Can you let us in on one particular thing you’re excited about?
Felgar: I'm super excited that there are four [alternative jet fuel] pathways approved through ASTM. We started down this path around eight years ago, and we already have four pathways approved.
One of the upcoming research reports being written is on a fuel called green diesel. It is already being produced today at a fairly large scale, and it is used in ground transportation currently, and we're looking at the potential for us in air transport, too. You can think of it kind of as that single battlefield fuel, and it's price competitive.
If we can ensure that that gets through the system, it will be near term at least as a solution that's fairly cost competitive for the airline industry. And so that's exciting, but it doesn’t preclude that others are in work as well at the same time, and we're fully supportive of all of them.
Melkonian: What is the feedstock for that green diesel?
Felgar: It's interesting. It's oil-based, so it depends on where you are in the United States. Right now, they use a lot of chicken fat, actually, in the southeast United States where Tyson's chicken plants are, so it's a good reuse of chicken fats. But it can be plant-based oils as well. There are other manufacturers in other parts of the world. Some of them use cooking oil to do it, like Neste in Finland. So it's a number of oil-based feed stocks.
Melkonian: And you can integrate them into one fuel? Is that the idea?
Felgar: Yes, and you can blend it in with Jet A since they are is molecularly identical at the end of the green diesel refining process today.
In general, we find that the biofuels that we have seen produced, tested and approved through the ASTM process, that since they're a synthetic fuel, they tend to have a higher energy density and obviously have far less contaminants than regular fuel. So there's an incentive to why a mix of biofuels would be more attractive down the road.
Melkonian: Looking far into the future, what do you think success at Boeing for you would look like?
Felgar: That's a very easy question to answer: The industry has set some pretty ambitious goals going forward that we would be carbon neutral by 2020 and reduce our carbon footprint by 50 percent by 2050 based on a 2005 baseline. So if by 2020, through a combination of technology and policy options, we have gone carbon neutral — to me, that's success.
Ensuring that the industry continues to work together and that Boeing continues to do its part in striving towards improving the environmental performance of our industry and our product line in particular — to me, playing a role in that is success at the end of the day.
Melkonian: Do you think there is a particular role for women in the sustainability world?
Felgar: I would say that in the sustainability world that I work with — folks and trade associations that deal with the environmental and sustainability issues in airlines around the world — there is at least a 50 percent mix of females to males in the space.
I find that in this area in particular seems to draw equally from both genders, and it seems to draw people who are very passionate about what they do. You can draw a line between what you do every day at work and an ultimate benefit for society at the end of the day. This tends to make for folks who are very passionate and committed to what they do.
Melkonian: Do you have any advice for people who might want to get into corporate sustainability?
Felgar: Yeah, I do, actually. I think it's great to want to solve huge global issues, but at the end of the day, you have to understand that in order to solve these huge issues, you need to be able to navigate through the business process. You need to be able to work in a company — understand the company's processes, the constraints around the company and the business strategy and plan — and identify how you align that with what you want to do from an environmental perspective.
I gave [my intern] a specific project related to how we manage the fuels approval process. ... What was most fascinating to him was that at the end of the day, it all comes back to how you are going to fund what you're going to do. Because nothing gets done without identifying the resources that are going to do it.
To fix a problem, you have to understand the entire chain that leads up to the problem and then identify within that chain where the different leverage points are that will allow you to fix the problem. And then for each of those leverage points, how do you get the resources committed to change their direction?
These very macro issues all come back down to micro strategy. Typically that means that you work in small incremental steps going forward. You have to have a long-term vision with a dedicated step-by-step plan on how to get there most effectively.
That's probably my advice to younger people: You always have to come right back down to the very basic foundational levels and build back up.