Aviation
11.12.2019

The brave and the innovative: Master of persuasion Henrik Erämetsä

Ninni Sandelius

Pictures: Marko Rantanen

Meet the man who triggered sustainable aviation’s metamorphosis from science fiction fantasy into reality. Finnish engineer Henrik Erämetsä tells journalist Ninni Sandelius how the world was persuaded to pursue a seemingly impossible “utopian project.”

Silence. Then two words: “Mission impossible.”

It’s not always “Eureka!” moments that change history. For every invention or innovation, a hundred things have to happen for the world to change. One of those things that has to happen: The world has to be ready to accept that change.

The word “impossible” hung in the air of the boardroom. Henrik Erämetsä, head of the Neste US office, had suggested to his superiors that Neste explore the possibility of helping to create a standard for a sustainable aviation fuel.

And his superiors had dismissed the idea. 

Not that one can blame them. Back in 2006, there was no such thing as sustainable jet fuel available in the world of aviation. It simply didn’t exist. Not as a market, not as a product, and, for most people, not at all (outside of science fiction). And the hurdle, incredibly, was not that it wasn’t possible.

In fact, the hurdle wasn’t technological at all, or due to a lack of interest or practicality. None of the things we think of when we talk about world-changing inventions.

To change the course of history this time required a less glamorous focus: standardization.

Standardization matters, though—and it matters a lot—for anything to have a hope of garnering broad appeal. Once it had been devised, producing Neste’s revolutionary new fuel was relatively easy. But before it could go into production, someone would have to develop and standardize it to make sure that it could be used anywhere, for any engine, at any time.

Neste had the resources to help make that happen. But still, the task appeared daunting.

 

I was told that developing a brand-new type of jet fuel would take 40 years and I should forget about this utopian project.

“I was told that developing and standardizing a brand-new type of jet fuel would take 40 years,” Erämetsä says today. “I was told that it would be completely unrealistic, and that I should just forget about this utopian project.”

But fortunately for all of us, on that day—and in the weeks, months, and years that followed—Erämetsä did not do as he was told.

Erämetsä and his team had witnessed the excitement in the U.S. around Neste’s new hit product, renewable diesel fuel. The team was certain that Neste should expand its production to air traffic as well.

So Erämetsä championed the idea of Neste taking part in this global project for creating a worldwide standard for renewable jet fuel, and he poured his energy into helping to turn this dream into a reality.

Now, 15 years later, thanks to his tenacity and persuasion and all the hard work done by that global project team, renewable jet fuel is available for air traffic around the world, and Neste is the leading provider.
 
And how does Erämetsä explain his success? “I quite like talking to people and trying to make them see things from another perspective,” he says.

An engineer from the start

Erämetsä showed an inclination toward engineering from an early age.

“My mother says I used a ruler while drawing as a kid,” he says.

It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that he would study engineering in earnest, which he went on to do at Finland’s Helsinki University of Technology in the ’70s .

We are in a meeting room at Neste headquarters. He rises and peers out of the window. “You can see the main building of the university across that road,” he says, pointing out the red brick auditorium of his alma mater, today called Aalto University. After graduating, Erämetsä spent 10 years designing, building, and selling ships and other waterborne devices. “When I drive past a shipyard, I still feel the thrill,” he says.

Erämetsä joined Neste at the turn of the new millennium, when the company was still called Fortum, initially as vice president of speciality products. With experience in both domestic markets and exports, he oversaw the sales of jet and ship fuels and bitumen.

But one event would go on to change the course of his career, and the world’s fight to live sustainably.

The Houston assignment

Houston, Texas: a hot spot for the international energy business. And in Houston, energy means oil. The city has even dubbed itself the Energy Capital of the World. The skyline features skyscrapers where energy industry giants as well as large engineering companies have their offices.

Neste, too, had been in the city for decades. And in 2004, Erämetsä was asked to manage Neste’s American office and move to Houston.
“I said yes almost in a heartbeat,” he recalls. “I have always been interested in new assignments. At that point, I had had two posts in Germany and one in Prague, so moving to another country was familiar to me.”

 

Austin is the city for intellectuals, Dallas the city for lawyers, and Houston the city for engineers.

“The Texans say that Austin is the city for intellectuals; Dallas is the city for lawyers; and Houston is the city for engineers,” Erämetsä says. “Even though as an engineer I’m sometimes immune to registering the engineer in myself and people around me, I still recognize the stereotype.”

For Erämetsä, Houston was a great place to live: The standard of living was high, and the warm climate appealed to a man accustomed to cold weather. Houston’s Neste office was small and intimate, with only 15 people. Neste was supposed to sell gas and isooctane—an important gasoline blend—to the U.S. (which mainly meant California) and Canada. “Neste was one of the few non-American refineries that provided gasoline to that market,” Erämetsä says.

But just a few months in, Erämetsä got a new assignment.

Neste had decided to take a huge leap into sustainable products, announcing plans to build a new refinery for renewable diesel fuel in Porvoo, Finland. The Houston office needed to start pre-marketing the new product to American audiences.

The stars of renewable fuels

Erämetsä and his team visited all of the industry conferences that they could, introducing their innovation in renewable fuels. The inventor of and the first company in the world investing in renewable fuel was something that everyone was curious about.

 

The only company in the world investing in renewable fuel was something that everyone was curious about.

“We quickly became well known in the industry circuit because of our ground-breaking diesel that reduces emissions,” Erämetsä says. “At one event, an important chief legislator told me that our presentation was the only reason he had wanted to come.”

“We soon got the feeling that we were doing things right and we had a genuine chance to succeed in bringing a new fuel to the market. It was a wonderful feeling, and it drove our ambition even more.”

By 2006, Erämetsä found out that there were other parties that were impressed by Neste’s investment plans, too. This would lead to a collaboration that would change the course for Neste, and the global fuel industry, once more.

A surprising contact

In 2006, U.S. government agencies, airlines, aircraft and engine manufacturers, energy producers, and researchers came together and formed the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative or CAAFI. CAAFI’s goal is to promote the development of alternative jet fuels that offer equivalent safety and favorable costs compared with petroleum-based fuel, while offering environmental improvement and energy supply security for aviation.
 
“At the time, petroleum prices were high and securing the supply of fuel for aviation was a concern in the U.S. army and government,” Erämetsä explains. “But there was another important reason to develop alternative fuels: to cut down carbon dioxide emissions and their impacts on the environment.”

 

We hadn’t thought about airplanes at all, as we were concentrating on renewable diesel for cars.

CAAFI had noticed Neste’s efforts in renewable diesel and it recognized Neste’s production had the potential to change the business in aviation, too. The organization contacted Erämetsä and his colleague Neville Fernandes to ask if Neste would join the effort in standardizing renewable jet fuel.

“We were surprised,” Erämetsä says. “We hadn’t thought about airplanes at all, as we were concentrating on the renewable fuel for cars.”

Erämetsä was soon convinced that Neste should spearhead the change from fossil fuels to renewable fuels in aviation as well.

“I was immediately enthusiastic about this opportunity,” he says. “But not everyone was on board with me.”

It started with a couple of liters

At the time, there was no sustainable jet fuel available in aviation.

Neste was invited to collaborate with CAAFI to create a standard for this new, sustainable jet fuel.

But before Neste—or any other company—could introduce a new type of jet fuel to the market, there needed to be a standard to ensure quality and safety.

 

If a plane’s turbine stops working because the tank is filled with the wrong kind of fuel, that is serious—much more so than your car stopping on the side of the road.

Erämetsä highlights the importance of jet fuel regulation. “Jet fuel is the most carefully regulated and tested fuel in the world,” he says. “If you have to stop the car on the side of the road because you filled the tank with the wrong kind of fuel? Sure. That’s annoying. But look, if a plane’s turbine stops working because the tank is filled with the wrong kind of fuel, that’s much more serious.”  

In the beginning, there were no “alternative aviation fuels,” let alone a definition about what they are or a process of how to approve them. So CAAFI and ASTM (the American association responsible for the global standardization of jet fuel) had to define all that. 

“The most important initial decision, and the starting point, was that we had to make sure the fuel was ’drop-in,’ meaning compatible with all airplane engines: the type of fuel one can just fill the tanks with at any airport in the world.”

This attention to detail makes the standardization process a slow one. Perhaps it’s no wonder his boss was so reluctant to take on Erämetsä’s suggestion that Neste should commit to an arduous—perhaps decades-long—process. 

Today, Erämetsä is understanding about that reluctance. “It was difficult to get the head office to greenlight something that made sense here, thousands of kilometers away,” he says.  

So Erämetsä did what knew he was good at. Listening, using a consultative approach, he set about understanding the objections, and then, softly, changing minds.

He persuaded his bosses to participate in the testing phase. It took a while, but slowly, cracks in the barriers began to appear. 

“Eventually, head office gave in and allowed us to send a couple of liters of our renewable fuel for initial tests,” he says. “It was a cautious start, but we were in.”

 

Erämetsä was right to go against the grain. The standardization process did not take 40 years: It took five.

Erämetsä was right to go against the grain. The standardization process did not take 40 years, as some had feared: It took just five. And it created the basis for a global market for sustainable aviation fuel—a product that previously did not exist. 

Proudest moment

Erämetsä remembers fondly the day in 2011 when Neste delivered a large consignment of its new Neste MY Renewable Jet Fuel to Lufthansa airlines.

He also recalls the inaugural test flight. “They did some really groundbreaking trials,” he says. “They flew a commercial airplane almost 1,200 times between Hamburg, Germany, and Frankfurt with two kinds of fuel: One engine had our renewable jet fuel and the other engine had regular jet fuel. Our new fuel worked just as well as the regular one.”

“I wish I had been on one of those test flights,” he adds. “It would have been fun.”

Last May, Neste restructured its organization so that renewable jet fuel became its own business unit. Erämetsä still calls that one of the proudest moments of his life.

“That means it is now a core business,” he says. “It has representation in the boardroom alongside the other businesses. So much can change in 10 years!”

“It demonstrates that Neste has the will and the confidence to develop new, sustainable, and commercially successful products,” he adds.

Indeed, after standardization and launch, Neste has ambitiously increased its jet fuel capacity in recent years.

“Neste now leads the industry with 100,000 tons of fuel in a year—all of which is manufactured in our Porvoo refinery. When our refinery in Singapore is finished, we will be able to make a million tons of fuel in a year. That will have a huge impact on the sustainability of global aviation.”

 

We hope to see many more operators in our field! We are not afraid of competition—we embrace it. We can’t be a credible force for change by ourselves.

The standard for the type of jet fuel Neste makes is available for other companies. Because more than anything, it’s not about giving one or more companies an advantage—it’s about opening up sustainability to everyone.

“We hope to see many more operators in our field,” Erämetsä says. “We are not afraid of competition—we embrace it. We can’t be a credible force for change by ourselves. We need to grow, and others need to grow, too, because without renewables, aviation cannot reach the environmental goals set by officials. There’s no way around it.”

Erämetsä works now as Neste’s head of aviation regulation. At the age of 63, according to Finnish policies, he could have retired last summer.

 

Without renewables, aviation cannot reach the environmental goals set by officials. There’s no way around it.

“I decided to keep working for another two years. There is still work to be done, and I really enjoy it. It would be great if I could see EU regulation on renewable jet fuels while still on the job.”

In his current role, Erämetsä closely follows the international debate on climate change and how it involves aviation. He participates in hearings and workshops in countries where the regulation process on sustainable fuels is on the agenda.

“For me, this is not just a job. This is important for me personally, too. We desperately need comprehensive actions to solve the climate crisis. This means complying to strict, jointly agreed upon regulations on a European level. To reach a worldwide agreement is much more difficult.”

 

It would be great if I could see EU regulation on renewable jet fuels while still on the job.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency within the UN that’s dedicated to aviation governance, will discuss a new strategy and timetable to promote sustainable fuels on a global level in its 2022 assembly. In other words, progress is being made slowly but steadily, Erämetsä explains.

“We need to discover ways to make flying more environmentally sustainable,” Erämetsä says. ”It needs to be stressed that we need not just one, but many solutions. Neste is the leading provider of one solution–’drop-in’ renewable jet fuel–but we are not against other solutions. Together we have more impact.”

Erämetsä hopes that the other producers and airlines will accept Neste’s challenge, too.

“There are hopeful signals,” he says. “In a recent ICAO seminar, the officials asked manufacturers what their future plans were for renewable aviation fuels. According to the results of this poll, by 2027, the total amount of renewable jet fuel produced could be 6 million tons annually. That is a promising sign.”

Erämetsä has had a career spanning four decades. He has spent his last 15 years promoting more sustainable ways for people to move on the ground and in the air.

And as for his legacy as the key person who pushed for the standardization of renewable jet fuel? He seems happy with it, albeit reluctant to accept too much acclaim. 

This is just one of the many things that he does well, after all: Persuades people to make smart things happen.

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