The challenges represented by energy--global warming, pollution, supply problems and security issues--also provide a wealth of exciting new opportunities for the United States, New England and MIT students and faculty.
That was the essence of the upbeat messages presented by panelists at last week's Energy Salon, sponsored by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), which brought together representatives of energy-related businesses, from small local startups to giant global companies, along with researchers and students.
The marriage of industry and academia is "a critical piece of the solution to our energy problems," said Melanie Kenderdine, MITEI's associate director for strategic planning. Such interactions, she said, will help create "the next generation of energy innovators that we are so in need of."
"The most important resource for solving our -energy problems isn't coal or oil or uranium, it's brainpower," said Richard Lester, director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center, who moderated the panel discussion at the MIT Faculty Club.
That's a resource that this region has in abundance. New England is working to "emerge as a global center of energy innovation," Lester said, and is well on its way: The region has more than 500 companies in the fields of renewable energy and efficiency, employing more than 14,000 people. Other regions "would give their eye teeth for what we have here," he said.
Kenan Sahin, CEO of the technology development firm Tiax LLC, addressed what he said were common myths about energy, especially the idea that energy is scarce. "Energy is abundant, it's everywhere. It's harnessing -energy in a way that makes sense" that needs work, he said.
Many people focus on the beginning of the innovation process, he said--coming up with new ways of doing things. But that's actually the easy part, he said. "The heavy lifting is on the other side. Anybody can sit at a table and come up with an idea, and 15 years later it's still not available." The hard, unglamorous part is the implementation and maintenance of systems.
Robert Healy, Cambridge's city manager for the last 26 years, said local governments play a significant role both in creating a business environment that attracts new industries and in using their own purchasing power to help foster innovation. Cambridge, for example, has begun a $100 million program to improve energy efficiency in the city.
Ann Berwick, undersecretary of energy for Massachusetts, said the state is also taking the initiative to enhance the region's leadership in energy innovations. "Massachusetts has the brainpower to make the world our customer," she said. New legislation being finalized now should help to bring that about. Among other things, Gov. Deval Patrick has signed executive orders for various measures to reduce the commonwealth's greenhouse-gas emissions, including installing energy-efficient lighting, and increasing the installed base of photovoltaic panels by more than a hundredfold.
Dan Reicher, director of climate and energy initiatives for Google, said the company has made a serious commitment to not only improve its own energy use, but also to foster the development of innovative solutions that could be applied worldwide. The company has just announced a plan to invest in projects to bring the cost of renewable energy production down below the cost of comparable coal-burning facilities.
The company wants to build a gigawatt's worth of renewable energy plants within the next few years, -Reicher said. "We face a simple economic reality: price matters," he said, so the company is focusing on making renewable solutions competitive in the marketplace.
Google hopes to help new energy companies cross the "valley of death" between an innovative prototype and wide-scale adoption that can bring about economies of scale, he said.
But the company is not doing this as charity, he stressed. "We think we can make money" by being a pioneer in new industries in solar-thermal, wind and geothermal energy, he said. Google will spend tens of millions of dollars in research and development, and hundreds of millions in building projects, to bring this about--and that represents an enormous opportunity for people with innovative ideas.
"We're looking for engineers and others to join us," Reicher said. "Send us resumes!"
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 12, 2007 (download PDF).