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Expert outlines energy problems for MIT crowd

The future of energy over the next three decades looks rosy for those whose greatest fear is running out of oil, but dismal for those who worry about the negative environmental impact of continued reliance on fossil fuels, according to Steve Koonin, chief scientist for BP, who described the energy industry for a packed crowd in Kirsch Auditorium on Sept. 22.

In his talk on energy trends and technologies, hosted by MIT's Energy Research Council, Koonin said that 85 percent of the world's energy currently comes from fossil fuels, a percentage that hasn't changed much over the past decade. Based on the continued availability of fossil fuels and the economic challenges of developing alternatives, he said he doesn't expect that percentage to change soon.

"Unless one does something dramatically different, it's fossil fuels for the next few decades," said Koonin, an MIT alumnus (Ph.D. in physics, 1975) who was a faculty member and provost at Caltech before moving to BP last year. Koonin is responsible for BP's long-term technology plans.

He said the world's known oil reserves will last at least 40 years, and probably 20 beyond that, but he believes that advanced solar and fusion techniques will likely provide much of our energy a bit further down the road when the cost of finding and developing such fossil fuels as oil and coal outstrips what society is willing to pay. Right now, we lack the political and social will to invest the necessary capital to develop new energy sources, he said.

"Local pollution in many ways is a solved problem," said Koonin. "The technologies exist; it's just a matter of how much you want to spend to clean things up. More problematic is climate change."

"We are emitting about twice the amount of CO2 that the atmosphere can integrate. So we must drop our carbon energy use to one-quarter what it is today in the next 50 years just to stabilize," he said. "Modest reductions only delay growth; a 10 percent reduction buys about seven years." The United States is still responsible for the largest percentage of CO2 emissions relative to gross domestic product; France, which uses nuclear power to produce electricity, has the lowest emissions per GDP. By 2020, the developing world will surpass the industrialized world in CO2 emissions, Koonin said.

Some of the follow-up questions from the audience challenged Koonin to look beyond the quantitative and descriptive analysis he had presented, but Koonin steered clear of the political realm. One audience member asked if BP's interests were getting in the way of new ideas. "I have a lot of money to spend," said Koonin. "If you come to me with a technically plausible idea that we can utilize, I'll fund it."

Another audience member asked if a shift in perspective is needed in looking at the capital costs of investing in new technology. "Yes," Koonin said, "But if you want to assign a cost to the future environmental issues, you must be able to quantify it better."

"But there must be a way for people at MIT to find a way to do that," responded the questioner.

"Yes," Koonin said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 28, 2005 (download PDF).

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