Archive for March, 2011

Mar
15

The Future of Biofuels: Environmental Innovation Fatigue for Environmental Advances?

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The federal government has set bold and challenging goals for future increases in the production of energy from non-fossil fuel sources. Seeking to curb our dependence on foreign oil as well as fossil fuels in general, our nation is encouraging the development of fuels from biological sources. Biofuels, diesel and gasoline made from renewable sources such as agricultural waste, forest sources, and algae, are a top priority and are the subject of extensive government-funded research and tax credits. Biofuels are a rich source of innovation and show an explosion in patent activity in the past 3 years.

Unfortunately, biofuels are also facing daunting challenges from uncertainty in federal regulations and tax policy that threatens to bring many innovations to a halt as industry puts many developments on hold due. The uncertainty in the environment–the regulatory and tax environment created by the government–is actually hindering many biofuel projects aimed aimed at enhancing the environment in the long run. This was the sentiment from several speakers in the midst of biofuels innovation in sessions at BioPro Expo 2011, a major conference on biofuels and forest bioproducts, being held in Atlanta, Georgia, March 14-16. Concern about government barriers to commercialization of biofuels advances was a repeated theme.

One example is federal regarding the definition of “renewable” for those seeking federal incentives for the use of renewable sources of fuels. Municipal solid waste (MSW) has a large component of plant-based materials such as paper and food waste, and is one of the most available and commercially attractive biofuel sources. The technology is proven, the raw material is available and economically feasible, and projects are ready to roll–except they have largely been put on hold until the federal government rules on whether MSW can be counted as “renewable” or not. Then there are strict new rules on boiler operation (the Industrial Boiler Maximum Achievable Technology, or BI MACT, rule) throwing another wrench and major cost burden on the backs of those with boilers generating energy from biomass sources. There are a host of other rules and conflicting definitions and policies adding to uncertainty, risk, and cost in commercializing biofuels. For the innovator, it is a challenging era with the potential of innovation fatigue from external or environmental factors.

Let’s hope that the rich opportunities being uncovered in biofuels can be commercialized rapidly and that the barriers to innovation can be reduced.

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In the United States and many other nations, a question is being asked by many who struggle with the brutal reality of innovation fatigue. In many sectors, it is taking bigger investments, longer times, and much more pain to deliver innovation, and much of what passes for innovation in some sectors ends up being incremental fluff or mere cost-cutting. Some blame it on employee productivity, some blame it on short-term thinking in pubic companies driven by the unnecessary compulsion to please stockholders above all others, some blame it on the MBA culture instilled by leading business schools, and others blame it on governments that make every entrepreneurial move a slow trudge across the regulatory mire and a possibly fatal descent into quicksand. Some point to numerous factors including the capital crunch, creating a perfect storm in which even cash-rich companies are afraid to invest in real innovation because of uncertainty and fear.

Innovation fatigue, of course, is not uniform. Individuals and individual companies often buck trends and rise above currents of fatigue, and sometimes entire sectors seem energized and vibrant with innovation. For example, innovation in mobile applications and devices seems vigorous, but even then we have former innovation leaders like Nokia and Motorola feeling the burn of fatigue across many parts of their business.

Where are the real pressure points? What are the next steps that America or other nations need to take to restore a vigorous innovation culture across many sectors and help their nations overcome innovation fatigue? What do corporate leaders need to be doing differently to turn their companies in havens of innovation that can deliver growth and success for the long term? What do our political leaders need to do and understand to let the fire of innovation burn more brightly?

Let me know your thoughts. The five answers I like best will be rewarded with a free copy of Conquering Innovation Fatigue mailed to wherever you are. All submissions will implicitly have your permission to share them, though I will withhold your name if you ask me to. Send your comments to jeff at magicinnovation d0t com.

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