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Leaders at MIT explore innovation-driven 'enertech' future

Mass. Energy Summit experts see commonwealth resources as key to solving global energy crisis

Massachusetts governor-elect Deval Patrick joined more than 80 representatives of industry, finance, government, higher education and nonprofits from around the region at the first Massachusetts Energy Summit at MIT Dec. 13.

The half-day meeting, convened by President Susan Hockfield and the governor's office, included MIT researchers working in energy-related fields on panels focusing on alternative technologies, efficiency and conservation and how to build up the energy sector. It brought together key players to determine how Massachusetts can leverage its resources to position itself as a leader in the race to solve the world's energy crisis within the next 50 years.

Participants brainstormed about how to make Massachusetts the site of an "enertech" (a twist on "biotech") revolution and a future energy technology cluster.

Ranch Kimball, secretary of economic development in the Romney administration, said Massachusetts needs a "shift in thought" from energy to energy resources such as local brainpower that can be locally controlled.

Patrick joined the alternative technologies breakout session and listened to entrepreneurs, researchers and university administrators talk about the difficulties of raising capital for technology in early stages of development.

While some investors are eager to back new energy technologies, it's still a challenge to find investors for early-stage efforts that are seen as too risky, said Cary Bullock of MIT spinoff GreenFuels Technologies of Cambridge, which recycles carbon dioxide into biomass for biofuel production. Venture capitalist Bob Metcalfe of Polaris Ventures Partners of Waltham agreed that innovation is fueled by up-and-coming "techies," not the old-boy network. "We need an 'enertech' bubble like the Internet bubble to accelerate progress," he said.

"I worked at Texaco, so I know oil and gas reserves are depleted," Patrick said. "I see energy technology as a big economic opening and I want Massachusetts to be at the center of this. If we do this right, the whole world will be our customer" for products developed and manufactured in the region.

Policy changes such as taxing carbon emissions, subsidizing biofuels and reversing archaic incentives for gas-guzzling vehicles will have to be part of the answer, participants said.

Entrepreneur Kenan Sahin said boosting technology transfer through manufacturing innovations such as microplants will be key.

"We need the kind of revolution MIT has led in biotech," Hockfield said, pointing out that 145 life sciences companies now ring Kendall Square in part because of MIT. New technologies are the hope of the future, including such MIT-driven ones as novel methods of ethanol production, reinvented batteries and environmentally friendly building design and construction.

Hockfield said that the big challenge for Massachusetts will be ensuring that locally developed technologies stay within the state to be manufactured by local residents. "We need a regulatory environment that rewards innovation," she said.

Hockfield cited the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) as an "ambitious Institute-wide effort that brings together motivated faculty and very brilliant students who have an unrelenting drive to change the energy world."

MITEI includes architects, urban planners and economists because "changing the energy infrastructure is a huge systems-wide problem," she said.

Hockfield described several MIT projects now underway that approach the energy issue in different ways. "Innovation is our best hope for addressing the energy challenges, but we should not delude ourselves into believing we can find a single silver bullet," she said. "We must explore multiple approaches. Energy solutions must come from a portfolio of technologies, not one 'winner takes all' approach. Some need to play out over a few years, and others over a few decades."

"The clock runs out in 50 years," said MITEI Director Ernest J. Moniz, professor of physics and engineering systems. Massachusetts, with its established infrastructures of biotechnology, higher education and investment in close proximity to one another, is in a good position to create an energy technology cluster, he said.

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