Developing Hype-Cycle Resilience to Accelerate Advanced Biofuel Technology

January 25, 2021 |

By Ross Mazur, Graduate Student, Colorado State University Impact MBA, Business Development & Project Engineer, Sustainable Fuels Consulting LLC

Special to The Digest

Hype, the ephemeral group discourse surrounding topics and ideas, is becoming more pervasive in our increasingly digital world. Although hype cycles, the temporal trends in societal perception of a specific technology or industry, are largely unavoidable and difficult to predict, they hold tremendous power to make or break industries. Hype can delay or even fully derail promising emerging technologies if poorly managed. Investors and technology developers therefore ignore hype at their own peril, and would benefit by best-practices, described below, to build resiliency against hype and hype cycles.

The timing and extent of investment and technology adoption influences the rate of development and ultimate success of new technologies. Although reinforcing hype has the power to enable earlier investment and deployment, these activities are generally counter-productive if they occur prematurely or are disproportionate to technical readiness. Conversely, discrediting hype can instill hesitancy in investors and thwart promising technologies at the moment they are ready to scale.  We all watched the Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) and Food vs. Fuel disputes of the late 2000’s bring biofuels into question, with ILUC ultimately being implemented into RFS2’s (U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard) mandated LCA (Life-cycle Assessment) methodology (EPA, 2010). Although some tried to leverage these disputes to promote 2nd generation (advanced) biofuels (Inderwildi and King, 2009), they also resulted in many conflating the risks associated with 1st and 2nd generation technologies (Ching, 2007; Oxfam Int., 2008; Folha de S. Paulo, 2008). Hype associated with these disputes led to RFS2 cellulosic biofuel volume mandate reductions which generated investor uncertainty, delaying investment in advanced biofuel R&D (Berti and Levidow, 2014; Bracmort, 2015).

Managing hype cycles to ensure that negative hype doesn’t kill promising technologies and industries requires an understanding of how hype cycles materialize, and their overall lifecycle.  A 2017 Scientific American article that compared the virality of a news piece to an epidemiological (disease model’s infection) curve provides some insight to the origins of hype. The article concluded that in social media, network structure effects (how people are connected) is more influential than specific infection rate (the probability of a reader reposting) and that having a large follower base doesn’t necessarily ensure superspreader events. One key network structure effect is the so-called “echo chamber” effect where a cluster of like-minded connected individuals repost the same article, leading to “social reinforcement” of other friends/followers who were otherwise uneducated or unopinionated on the topic (Mukerjee, 2017). In this way, hype doesn’t necessarily originate from those with a large megaphone, but instead is amplified through small communities of like-minded individuals, establishing the narrative before it jumps to other adjacent networks.

Although the origins of hype may seem stochastic, their evolution through various cycles shares a common pattern. Gartner, the business research and advisory consultancy, developed the industry standard methodology, the “Gartner Hype Cycle” continuum, along which any technology can be plotted at a given point in time (Gartner Inc., 2020). The cycle, shown below, is characterized by the following stages: First, an “Innovation Trigger” or “tech breakthrough”; Second a “Peak of Inflated Expectations”, often coinciding with the investment peak due to the bandwagon fallacy; Third the “Trough of Disillusionment”, defined by the inability to deliver on promises; Fourth the “Slope of Enlightenment”, when investment again picks up and more appropriately matches development needs; and finally the Last stage, the “Plateau of Productivity”, wherein high technical readiness results in widespread deployment. By understanding where a technology sits on the hype cycle curve, investors and developers can better predict future trouble and performance.

One challenge is that some technologies and industries go through multiple peaks and valleys in their hype cycle evolution. One example is the fuel cell-electric vehicle (FCEV). FCEV’s are now entering what could be regarded as their second major period of heightened investment (Sanderson, 2020). What is currently unknown for FCEV’s, is if this phase will be followed by another “trough of disillusionment”, or if FCEV’s are here to stay, enabling a “plateau of productivity”.  Poorly managed hype will arguably influence whether FCEV’s are seen as a success or failure and thereby dictate the next hype cycle stage.

A key insight in taming these cycles is recognizing their chicken or the egg nature. To continue the FCEV example, many of the proclaimed statistics framing FCEV as better (or worse) than battery electric vehicles (BEV) depend on FCEV’s being more widely adopted, leading to technical, economic, and convenience improvements exceeding that of the other technology. Another way of looking at it is if society embraces one solution, no matter the reason, then the problems inherent in that solution become easier to solve, while problems in other unchosen solutions become more pronounced. This seemingly validates the original choice when in fact another solution may have been more optimal. When society does decide to widely get behind a technology, it might not necessarily have been because it was the “best”, but rather due to a favorable perception among decision makers and the general populous. This makes ignoring hype cycles potentially fatal for an emerging technology.

Similar hype cycles currently exist in the advanced biofuels sector, and it is worth acknowledging the uncertainty in these cycles that is brought about by debated topics. Although there are several debated topics, such as carbon impact of and justification of land use for dedicated bioenergy crop production, or investor hesitancy brought about by announced project back downs which have potential to hamper deployment of advanced biofuels, it is the decarbonization vs defossilization debate which puts our sector in imminent danger.

Even though our industry understands the impracticality of “electrify everything”, and that biofuels are the key to crashing the critical path to defossilization, many favorable of the Green New Deal (GND, here described as synonymous with those in the “green movement”) are distrustful of the promises of biofuels, seeing our industry as at best in bed with fossil interests and at worst aligned with them. This large community promotes “electrify everything”, embraces the narrative “any hydrocarbon is a bad hydrocarbon”, and is widely spreading negative hype.

It was not long ago that biofuels were preached as a key component of a renewable future by environmental groups. But the daylighting of social and environmental misconduct by the oil majors and further awareness of the harms associated with combustion byproducts, particularly on low-income communities, undermined the message. This change in heart contains a lesson in hype: it is reasonable to blame 1st generation biofuels for building a hype cycle that led to overly optimistic promises of clean and secure (energy independent) domestic fuel production. A “trough of disillusionment” was brought upon by Food vs. Fuel, ILUC, and the inability to meet RFS cellulosic volume targets. Further, it likely did not help when oil companies purchased corn grain ethanol facilities for the purpose of achieving RFS compliance (Kates, 2009), linking biofuels and fossil majors.

With advanced biofuels, there is risk that a mismanaged hype cycle could end up yielding a similar outcome, killing the sector entirely. An important part of managing this is ensuring that our communications don’t overpromise and are upfront with risks. If we are to again overpromise, it would create an opportunity for the “any hydrocarbon is a bad hydrocarbon” community to say “see, I told you so!” Another part of managing this is to separate the concepts of advanced biofuel and renewable natural gas from petroleum-derived fuels and fossil natural gas. The “electrify everything” community have done a good job connecting the two, when in reality, big oil actively attacks biofuels policy like the LCFS and RFS.

Because of the nature of hype and echo chambers, all of those individuals unfamiliar with energy technologies who want clean and green solutions are easily influenced by the vocal “electrify everything” community who is currently portraying biofuels as synonymous with big oil. We need to drive home the message that fossil carbon is to blame, not all carbon.

The industry shouldn’t shy away from the fact that there are good reasons to get off of hydrocarbons. But rather than demonize hydrocarbons for their impacts at time of use, we should encourage a focus on the entire lifecycle of a technology. Electrification faces similar challenges that are too often glossed over. These include child labor issues, environmental pollution issues, and laborer rights and pay issues stemming from poorly regulated overseas mining of metals for batteries, depletion of other natural resources, and problems with end-of-life recyclability. Acknowledging these imperfections along with the long timelines for realistic mass electrification of heavy transport and passenger airlines make a strong case that an ‘all-hands on deck’ policy is the best approach.

If educational intervention is not taken, we risk the advent of policies and regulations that negatively impact further development of advanced biofuels, at least domestically. We need to additionally insert ourselves into other venues outside of our usual industry conferences, such as “clean tech” conferences (where electrification is often a large focus) and environmental and activist meetups. We need to ensure our seat at the table with those authoring the GND, with whom, when it comes down to it, we have so much in common. Spreading our message to echo chambers besides our own, throughout society is an effective way of doing so. Additional tactics are described below.

Even with the potential for lack of consensus driving “troughs of disillusionment”, there are a number of tangible ways we can build resilience. These practices could be categorized as either: reducing generation of hype, or building resilience in the face of hype that is generated:

  1. Reducing Generation of Hype
  • Application of some of the powerful tools shared in the recent Digest Connect session titled, “The Science of Yes”, (content developed by: Jim Lane, Steve Weiss, and Beth Bannerman) included:
    • Words matter
      • Earn Trust
      • Prove SARA (Sustainable Affordable Reliable Available)
      • Make (technology) Relevant (to others)
      • Think of Them (“you”)
      • Be Painfully Real (“we are on a journey”)
      • (accurately) Certify Low Risk (“safe”)
      • Enable Others (“to Join” in on this Journey)
    • Companies should strive to not fake-it-until-they-make-it – if a technology will take 5 more years to develop, it is doing injustice to suggest it will be ready in 3 (in attempts to garner funding)
      • Equally as dangerous, is claiming expertise – Sustainable Fuels Consulting LLC offers engineering services and acts as a technical liaison, but does not claim to have career-seasoned industry expertise
    • Carry out Objection Clinics: seek out others’ questions, doubts, concerns – understand what brings about hesitancy. Implement the newly-gained understanding into all communications (internal and external)
  1. Building Resilience in the Face of Hype that is Generated
  • Support broad-based, technology-agnostic policy frameworks (such as CA-LCFS)
  • Support pilot and demonstration programs – nothing demonstrates feasibility like a demonstration
  • Executives, use your power of CPR (Corporate Political Responsibility) to endorse the development and commercialization of energy technologies inside and outside of the biofuel sector. We are all in this together and need unbiased support for other clean tech. For example, if we endorse commercialization of Gen IV (advanced) nuclear, this might help in finding allies and building coalitions. If hype dominance is a numbers game, having allies in more echo chambers can’t hurt.
  • Along those lines, push towards global culture of clean tech “yay-saying” rather than “nay-saying”
  • Publicize the science and tangible improvements (carbon benefit additionality) and merits of deploying a given technology. Further, having more renewables on the grid will only help further reduce CI scores.
  • Be vocal in a diversity of venues – get our message into echo chambers throughout society
    • Distinguish the advanced biofuel sector from the oil industry
    • Acknowledge the hard truths of biofuels and electrified transport (neither is perfect)

 

Let’s help accelerate our transition to a defossilized world, let’s build resilience against hype.

Author: Ross Mazur, Graduate Student, Colorado State University Impact MBA, Business Development & Project Engineer, Sustainable Fuels Consulting LLC. [email protected] or www.fuelsconsulting.com

Graciously edited by, Brentan Alexander, Chief Science Officer, New Energy Risk, Contributor, Forbes

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