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Energy Research Council issues report

President Susan Hockfield announced a new energy initiative in her inaugural address last May. Today, MIT's Energy Research Council released its recommendations in a 50-plus-page report.
President Susan Hockfield announced a new energy initiative in her inaugural address last May. Today, MIT's Energy Research Council released its recommendations in a 50-plus-page report.
Photo / Rick Friedman

The Energy Research Council, charged by MIT President Susan Hockfield last June with exploring how MIT can help meet the global energy challenge, released its 50-plus-page report today, thrusting MIT into a new era of energy research, education and campus initiatives.

A PDF of the report may be downloaded at

The report, which culminates almost a year of effort by 16 faculty members from all five MIT schools, calls for an energy-focused laboratory or center with its own research space to be established within five years, and an independent steering organization to carry out MIT's new energy initiatives.

The Energy Research Council (ERC) recommends "a multifaceted approach to increasingly urgent energy issues," according to the report submitted this week to the president by ERC co-chairs Ernest J. Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems and co-director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, and Robert C. Armstrong, the Chevron Professor and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering.

In writing the report, the ERC solicited input from faculty members, students and staff, as well as from alumni and key industry leaders. An Industrial Liaison Program Industry Energy Workshop in December 2005 provided information on how MIT can work best with industry on energy-related topics.

Hockfield is reviewing the report and is expected to decide which of its recommendations the Institute will act upon.

In conjunction with the release of the report, the Institute is sponsoring today's daylong "MIT Energy Forum: Taking on the Challenge" in Kresge Auditorium. The forum will feature talks by 19 MIT faculty members, including members of the ERC and others whose work represents some of MIT's many areas of energy-related research in science, technology and policy.

"The need for new global supplies of affordable, sustainable energy is perhaps the single greatest challenge of the 21st century," the report states. "Increasing tension between supply and demand is exacerbated by rapidly escalating energy use in developing countries, security issues facing current energy systems and global climate change. These converging factors create an unprecedented scenario requiring a multifaceted approach to increasingly urgent energy issues."

Research and education goals

The ERC's three-pronged approach spans research, education and campus-based programs. It calls for a broad three-part initiative in:

  • basic science and technology to help transform the global energy systems of the future;
  • technology and policy to make today's energy systems effective, secure and environmentally responsible; and
  • the design of technology and systems for a rapidly developing world.

These research thrusts would include expanding and refocusing existing MIT work on topics such as solar power, nuclear power systems, the science and policy of climate change, electro-chemical storage and conversion, biofuels, multiscale modeling and simulation, subsurface science and engineering, energy-efficient buildings and transportation technology and systems.

In education, the ERC recommends an integrated set of options developed to incorporate interdepartmental and interschool interests. An initial priority is an energy minor (or minors) for undergraduates. The current review of the General Institute Requirements that all students take before graduating is an opportunity to "consider how energy subject matter could be included in the undergraduate common curriculum," the report said. A newly created Energy Education Task Force would be in charge of coordinating MIT-wide educational initiatives.

Walk the talk

There are many opportunities for improvement in the MIT campus infrastructure's energy efficiency, the report said.

"Improving campus energy management will lower energy use and cost, reduce emissions and provide an important learning environment for faculty, students and staff," according to the report. "The ERC recommends a comprehensive assessment of the trade-offs, benefits and costs of different approaches to reducing campus energy use."

Options include creating a revolving loan fund to support energy-saving projects with reasonable payback periods. Such projects would enable faculty and students to use the MIT campus as a laboratory for energy efficiency and conservation, the authors wrote.

Energy, past and future

MIT has a long history of tackling energy issues. As early as 1882, when MIT President William Barton Rogers uttered his legendary last words of "bituminous coal," MIT has understood energy's significance in society. Over the decades since its founding, the Institute has pushed the envelope of research and policy by creating laboratories, experimenting with materials and processes and investigating the underpinnings of public opinion, while advancing scientific and technological education to produce generations of alumni who took the MIT show on the road.

The original MIT entity to bring together energy work in the sciences, engineering and management was the Energy Laboratory, established in 1972. "For three decades, the Energy Laboratory conducted research, educated students and performed public service in support of economically sound, globally conscious and environmentally responsible energy policies and technologies," the ERC report said.

Its successor, the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment (LFEE), was created in 2001 by merging the Energy Lab and the Center for Environmental Initiatives. The broadened scope of the LFEE brought together researchers from all over MIT "to collaborate on problem-solving and innovative management in support of a sustainable future," according to the 2003-2004 Report to the President.

The ERC report proposes a new organiztional structure to lead energy research: an MIT Energy Council (MITEC) that would represent the five schools and work toward creating within five years a permanent energy laboratory or center with central research space. LFEE would become part of this new entity, which will "help MIT to maintain a single, clear interface to the world on energy."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 3, 2006 (download PDF).

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