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Experts discuss 'tomorrow's crisis'

For every promising energy solution, there are pitfalls that may deflate wind's sails, take the shine off solar, nuke nuclear. The MIT Energy Conference brought together technology, policy, industry and finance leaders for a day to figure out how to ensure that energy technologies evolve to their fullest potential to halt global warming, stabilize energy-related political unrest and bring down prices at the pump.

"Solving Tomorrow's Energy Crisis: Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Policy," drew hundreds of participants from a variety of fields to the Tang Center on Saturday, May 13.

Keynote talks were given by Joseph Romm, executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions and author of "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate"; Vinod Khosla, founding CEO of Sun Microsystems, venture capital executive and "social entrepreneur" using microfinance as a poverty alleviation tool; W. Bob Lockwood of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an advisor to international energy companies, governments, financial institutions and technology providers; and Don Paul, vice president and chief technology officer of Chevron Corp.

Panels of technologists, financiers, politicians and entrepreneurs described the fact and fiction behind biofuels, clean carbon, solar, nuclear, buildings and transportation.

Alternative fuels are key, said William Moomaw, director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at Tufts University. "If we burned all the oil that remains to be recovered, we would be putting 200 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere," an amount equaling two-thirds of what has already been emitted, Moomaw said.

In biofuels, the news is largely good: "Biofuels, combined with increased vehicle efficiency and smart growth, could eliminate the need for gasoline by 2050," said Yerina Mugica of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The U.S. Energy Bill-mandated goal of 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year will likely be met by 2009, well before the 2012 deadline. The challenge will be changing the petroleum-based infrastructure to make ethanol-burning cars and ethanol pumps more widely available.

Solar power's future is more cloudy. In Germany and Japan, the success of the solar industry was directly proportional to the level of government subsidies. In the United States, the industry is determined to go from $10 billion to $100 billion in revenues with the help of government incentives and market-driven manufacturing improvements. Many believe that once solar achieves "grid parity" -- cost-competitiveness with conventional grid-supplied electricity -- people will choose solar over other sources.

MIT researchers described their state-of-the-art work in metabolic engineering; electrochemical storage; nanotechnology for thermoelectric conversion; organic semiconductors for lighting and solar energy conversion; and chemical breakthroughs in harvesting hydrogen from solar and water.

The conference also provided a forum for entrepreneurs to network with energy venture capitalists, technologists and academics. Students showcased their work in a poster session on Friday, May 12.

The event was sponsored by the Venture Capital and Private Equity Club, the MIT Energy Club and the MIT Sloan Energy and Environment Club.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 17, 2006 (download PDF).

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