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MIT brimming over with energy

Conference showcases a sustainable future
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"Scale" was the keyword as hundreds of people gathered this past weekend for the fourth annual MIT Energy Conference. The event, organized entirely by student groups, has evolved "essentially from a standing start to become one of the premier energy events," said President Susan Hockfield at the meeting's opening.

While there has been rapidly growing enthusiasm in recent years about a variety of approaches to improving the world's energy systems, "no matter how bright many of these new technologies seem, most of them wither around questions of scale," Hockfield said. The magnitude of the world's dependence on fossil fuels, and of the problems associated with those fuels, makes it difficult for any new approach to make a significant impact.

Thus, the conference's title, "Solutions that scale to meet the energy challenge," addressed the often-overlooked heart of the matter. And while the dozens of talks, panel discussions and exhibits in the two-day conference and exhibit acknowledged the daunting nature of the challenge, a sense of shining but realistic optimism pervaded the event.

The sheer magnitude of the problems can translate into an equally vast opportunity, said John Doerr, a pioneer venture capitalist whose firm bankrolled some of the biggest winners in the computer and Internet booms including Sun, Google, Compaq and Symantec. In his opening keynote address, Doerr predicted that "the market for energy technology is larger, maybe 10 times larger," than the Internet boom that preceded it. "We're at the beginning of a green technology boom."

In order to kick-start that process, there is a need for much greater investment in research, he said. Today, the total annual research and development budget for new energy technology is about equal to just one day's profits from a single fossil energy company, Exxon Mobil. And last year, the U.S. government slashed spending on one of the most promising energy technologies, geothermal power, to just $5 million, despite the fact that geothermal may have the largest-scale possibilities of all, with "the potential to equal our total energy use," Doerr said.

That emphasis was echoed by MIT Professor of Chemical Engineering Jefferson Tester, whose studies of geothermal resources showed the vast scale of this resource--which, unlike many forms of sustainable energy, is available virtually everywhere, and all the time. "The numbers are staggering" for the amount of geothermal energy that could ultimately be harnessed, he said, and developing the technology to enable widespread deployment could be accomplished for about the price of a single new coal-fired power plant.

Another area with enormous potential is energy efficiency, as several speakers emphasized. J. Michael McQuade, a senior vice president at United Technologies, cited an example of a single manufacturing plant his company built in China for elevator manufacturing. In the design of the million-square-foot facility, planners were asked to spend up to an additional 10 percent of the building's cost, in order to achieve up to 15 percent reduction in energy costs. In fact, they were able to achieve a 28 percent energy improvement, at a cost increase of just 4 percent. That's typical, McQuade said: Surveys showed that managers overestimate the costs of efficiency, and underestimate the benefits.

That's an error that businesses, or nations, can ill afford, said James Rogers, chairman of Duke Energy, one of the nation's largest utility companies. "I think the most successful economies of the future will be the ones that are most energy efficient," he said. "Energy efficiency should be your first option," but is often treated as an afterthought.

John Holdren, professor of environmental policy at Harvard, agreed with that assessment, saying that "the easiest, fastest, cheapest leverage is to be found on the demand side"--that is, by improvements in efficiency.

But to bring about the changes that are needed will require a major shift in national priorities, said James Woolsey, former head of the CIA. The oil industry, he pointed out, currently gets $1 trillion a year in subsidies--despite the fact that it is enjoying all-time record profits. "We need to pay attention to the existing subsidies," he said, but "when you do the real computations, renewables are a lot closer than people think."

Making the right choices on energy, he said, can not only prevent devastating damage to the planet and the dangers of reliance on unstable regimes around the world, it can create jobs and profits at the same time, contrary to claims that it will have great costs. "You can make money, instead of losing it, by doing things environmentally," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 2008 (download PDF).

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