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Everything new under the sun

MIT group will chart the course for solar energy

In a major new project that could help set the agenda for policymakers, researchers and industry leaders, a team of MIT faculty members has begun a comprehensive study of the technology and the economics of a variety of approaches to harnessing the power of the sun.

Under the direction of Institute Professor John Deutch, the group will spend about a year and a half analyzing the prospects for solar photovoltaics, solar thermal generating systems, solar water heating, and the use of solar energy to produce fuels.

The MIT Future of Solar Energy Study will be the third in a series of broad studies of energy options, joining earlier studies on the future of coal and the future of nuclear power. "Once again, we're going to do a study on a big energy area," says Deutch. "We're looking for it to be both widely read and influential."

Harnessing the particular strengths of this institution, he says, the report will be "MIT speaking in a way only MIT can -- with an interdisciplinary focus, addressing in depth an area of energy." The report will have "a breadth of focus that encompasses technology, economics and policy, and looks at how these need to work together."

The nine faculty members on the team include specialties in chemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, materials science and engineering, physics, economics, and management.

While the intent is to work on the study for about 18 months, Deutch says, there is no set time limit. "It's more important that we get the substance right" than to follow an arbitrary deadline, he says. "We won't conclude until the results justify it and we have something original to say." When published, the entire report will be made available free on the Internet.

The panel will have an executive director, yet to be selected, and will also include participation by students throughout the process. The study will look at prospects for solar energy both in the United States and globally, Deutch says. "We'll look at what's involved in deployment both in developed countries -- the US, Europe and Japan -- and in poorer countries, in Africa, South America, and Asia, that get a lot of sunlight."

The committee will have an outside advisory panel, headed by Philip Sharp, President of Resources for the Future. The study will be financed by the Chesonis Family Foundation and other foundations.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 4, 2008 (download PDF).

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