In 2024, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels feels urgent — and it certainly is — but for Gene Gebolys, it’s been a fixation since childhood. 

Growing up during the energy crisis of the 1970s, he remembers U.S. President Jimmy Carter pleading with American households to conserve energy by turning down their heat. Gebolys also centered his junior high school science fair projects on sustainable alternatives such as electric cars and gasohol (a fuel comprised of gasoline and ethanol.)

“All my life it’s been clear that the connection between our world and how we power it is pretty fragile, and our reliance on fossil fuels is a tenuous relationship at best,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by the subject matter and that fascination has stuck with me.” 

So Gebolys has dedicated his career to establishing a transparent and solutions-driven biofuel ecosystem, founding World Energy as a low-carbon solutions provider to help the world’s leading companies make their net-zero commitments a reality. 

A leader in renewable fuels and emerging sustainability technologies for the past 25 years, World Energy was the world’s first producer of commercial scale sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), a jet fuel replacement comprised of renewable resources such as cooking oil, animal fat and agricultural waste. 

“A theme that we’ve gotten comfortable with is that we go into industries that don’t quite exist, and we cause them to exist,” he says. “It’s challenging because often we are establishing the new norms of an industry.”

To date, World Energy’s efforts have eliminated 250,000 tonnes of aviation emissions and counting. In November 2023, they partnered with Gulfstream Aerospace Corp on the world’s first 100% net-zero transatlantic flight fueled solely on SAF from Savannah, Georgia, USA to London. 

Along the way, Gebolys has become a global advocate for innovation and collaboration. He’s also proved that an industry with a historically negative impact on our climate crisis can ultimately be a part of the solution.

Market maker

After studying economics and business management and receiving a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, Gebolys found himself drawn to the intersection of big agriculture, big oil and public policy. He joined Twin Rivers Technologies, the United States’ first stand-alone biodiesel company, but quickly realized he was less interested in manufacturing and more interested in introducing biofuel alternatives to as many people as possible. On Earth Day 1998, he launched World Energy as that vehicle.

“To me, the making of the fuel wasn’t the problem, the making of the market was,” he remembers. “I wanted to talk to customers, figure out what they wanted, and work backward from there on the public policy instruments we needed to change so that this alternative to fossil fuel could really take root.”

World Energy established itself as a first-mover, at the forefront of the commercialization of renewable fuels. In 2018, when they acquired AltAir, a California-based renewable diesel producer, a promising new opportunity arose: sustainable aviation fuel. 

“What became very clear was that biofuels were going to be the way we were going to decarbonize aviation,” he says. “There are other ways you can decarbonize ground-based transportation. But there aren’t other ways that you can decarbonize aviation.”

When used in air travel, SAF reduces lifetime emissions by up to 85% compared to standard fossil fuels. But it’s more costly to produce. And despite even the most honorable of intentions, airlines and companies have bottom lines. So Gebolys pursued an innovative path: work within capitalism, not against it, to get people on board. He did this by separating what the product did, from how it was made. 

What their product did was get a plane from point A to point B with fewer harmful emissions. They were also using less carbon to manufacture the SAF. By selling those two things separately — the fuel and the opportunity to contribute to the process of decarbonization — he and his team have been early movers in the high-integrity tokenization of decarbonization with sustainable aviation certificates (SAFc.)

The immediate impact of insetting 

For many, the carbon credit industry can be confusing. Often there is a lack of transparency, and one might argue that companies using them aren’t doing their part toward progress, instead paying a fee to continue their detrimental practices. But Gebolys sees the use of SAF certificates as an impactful solution right now. 

Because while companies like World Energy are making incredible progress, we are still a long way from using SAF on a global scale. Currently, it represents only 0.1% of the world’s jet fuel supply. SAF has been used in blends since 2016, but it’s still inefficient to ship SAF to all airports where demand exists. (SAF is currently approved for up to 50% blend by ASTM International). And again, it’s more costly to produce than fossil fuels. 

So, if a company is looking to decarbonize its aviation footprint now, while the supply and technology catch up, purchasing SAFc allows them to directly move the industry forward by covering the cost of SAF production to get more SAF into the supply chain. 

With SAFcs, Gebolys is positioning World Energy as a leader in a new era of sustainability economics: insetting — the purchasing of verifiable credits within the same industry as your carbon emissions. 

Leading the market in the development of insets is by far going be the biggest contribution we ever make to the world. How market economics are unleashed in support of decarbonization is really turning the tide on capitalism to serve decarbonization, not work against it. ”
— Gene Gebolys, Founder and CEO, World Energy share twitter

And global companies are taking notice. In 2023, both Microsoft and DHL signed multi-year agreements with World Energy, marking the largest and longest-term deployments of SAFc to date. Microsoft’s 10-year contract will displace 43.7 million gallons of fossil jet fuel with SAF via SAFc and is expected to reduce more than 469,000 metric tonnes of CO2 from corporate air travel. DHL’s seven-year agreement is expected to reduce approximately 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent on a lifecycle basis from 668 million liters of SAF via SAFc.

“Leading the market in the development of insets is by far going be the biggest contribution we ever make to the world,” sats Geboyls. “How market economics are unleashed in support of decarbonization is really turning the tide on capitalism to serve decarbonization, not work against it.”

Gebolys is committed to building a voluntary insetting market with integrity, supported by an ecosystem of third-party registries and verification services. Rather than the sometimes dubious nature of offsetting — where does your money go when you agree to offset your personal flights or online shopping purchases? — Gebolys is ensuring that their sustainability practices can be traced from the moment the SAF materials are collected to when it lands in a plane’s tank. 

“We’re moving into a world in which complete transparency is going to be absolutely expected everywhere,” he says. “If you’re going to try to do anything sneaky, particularly in the work we do, that’s not going fly.”

From Gebolys’ efforts emerges an insetting model that can drive decarbonization across other hard-to-abate sectors such as steel and shipping, making the implications enormous in combatting climate change.

Confronting high stakes head-on 

As Gebolys expands the market for SAFc, World Energy is also building out the facilities needed to help the SAF sector flourish, including a USD3 billion investment to convert a legacy petroleum refinery in Los Angeles into a 100% renewable production facility. The model is being replicated at the company’s Houston facility, and when both are complete, they will produce 500 million gallons of SAF, making World Energy a key player in meeting U.S. President Biden’s Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge.

And Gebolys’ company isn’t focused solely on innovation in the aviation space. Their total investment of USD15 billion into major sustainability projects across North America includes one of the most advanced green hydrogen projects in the world, in Newfoundland, Canada. In 2023 they acquired key infrastructure and secured a first round of USD50 million to create a production facility and export terminal where yet-to-be-built wind turbines will convert water into hydrogen that can eventually be used in place of natural gas. 

All of this comes as many companies approach their net-zero deadlines. Additionally, the European Union will require 2% SAF use by 2025, climbing to 70% by 2050, and the United Kingdom and Japan have similar benchmarks.

Measures like these align with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s estimations that to remain under the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold thought to limit the impact of global warming, the world needs to reach net zero emissions by the year 2050.

“We live in such a polarized world where we can’t just agree on some fundamental truths. But here is the most basic fundamental truth: The status quo is going to kill us. We will not survive,” he warns. “We have to be able to grow our economy, improve the lives of the people living on the Earth and do it in a way that it doesn’t create species suicide.”

But Gebolys is determined to do his part and remains optimistic. 

“It’s amazing how hard it is to do this work. It’s insanely hard,” he says. “But it’s helpful to just close the exit door on quitting; to just say, ‘whatever it takes. We’ll get through.’ Tokenized decarbonization is going to change the world. It’s the most powerful tool I’ve ever seen. I’m proud we have proven this can be done, and we’re going to make damn sure it gets done.”