Speakers at MIT's fourth annual student-led Energy Conference on Saturday emphasized the historic opportunity now open to proponents of clean energy: a global economic crisis that can be directly addressed by sweeping changes to the way we produce and use energy. And research universities, they said, could play a major role in helping to bring about such a transformation.
"We need to focus on alternative energy because reviving the economies of the world requires a return to fundamental economic growth," MIT President Susan Hockfield said. "I'm convinced that the next wave of economic growth will rise from the same source that powered the information and biotechnology revolutions: from innovation. And today, by far the most powerful potential for immediate, catalytic innovation is alternative energy."
The sold-out conference, organized by the MIT Energy Club and the MIT Sloan Energy and Environment Club, attracted hundreds of energy professionals, investors, entrepreneurs, policy makers, academics and students. Saturday's gathering was preceded by an Energy Showcase on Friday night that featured more than 60 students' posters about academic research projects on energy as well as displays from dozens of energy companies, many of them spinoffs from MIT research, and a variety of interactive exhibits.
Conference keynote speaker Lars Josefsson, CEO of Swedish energy company Vattenfall, recently announced plans for his company -- which operates in several other European nations -- to achieve complete carbon neutrality in all its power production by 2050, making it the world's first major energy supplier to make such a sweeping commitment.
"If we can do it, anyone can do it," said Josefsson, adding that the global nature of climate problems requires coordinated worldwide action. He emphasized that although the sweeping changes needed will take decades to implement, it is essential to begin the process immediately.
If bold action is taken now, the problems "will be solvable," he said. But "if we carry out business as usual for 10 years, the equation will have no solution, it won't be possible, which means the time to act is now. If we delay, we'll reach the point of no return."
If Josefsson is right, however, not all action will be painful. About a third of mankind's carbon emissions, he asserted, could be eliminated by measures that have "negative costs." Such measures, typically in the form of improvements in efficiency, save more money than they cost to implement, but often fail to be implemented solely because of the way their costs are allocated (as when it is the owner of a building who pays for efficiency improvements, but the tenants who enjoy the resulting savings). For the most part, Josefsson contended, these can be addressed simply with changes in regulations and standards.
Josefsson also spoke of the importance, as the world works to curb emissions, of carbon capture and sequestration, which holds the promise of reducing greenhouse gases from the production of energy from fossil fuels. Already, a pilot coal-fired plant Vattenfall operates in Germany has demonstrated the feasibility of capture and sequestration, he said. "Technically, it's possible to do 100 percent" capture of the carbon emissions, he said, although it remains to be seen whether that can be achieved economically.
Vattenfall is investing aggressively in wind power, including a new project under way to provide 6,000 megawatts from a string of wind turbines off the coast of England. It is also investing in new nuclear plants, as well as wave power and biomass plants.
'A liberating event'
U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), a member of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said in his keynote talk, "I believe the clean energy revolution can succeed," and that it's scientists and engineers rather than politicians who will lead the way. What's needed now, he said, is a national commitment to energy research and development similar to that of the Apollo program.
Inslee said that, contrary to some people's feeling that in the present economic crisis we should scale back plans to fund energy research and address global warming, he sees this as "a liberating event" and a chance to "break with old investment practices and start anew." New approaches to energy are now "an economic necessity," he said, and "it would be a crime not to recognize and seize" this opportunity. "An economic crisis sets the psychological conditions for change."
Inslee detailed seven steps that he said need to be implemented to deal with our energy and economic problems. First and foremost, he said, is to "level the playing field" by requiring that energy costs reflect the true costs to society. Currently, he said, "the deck is stacked â€¦ Fossil fuels get a free ride." A crucial step, he said, is for the government to set emissions limits and then auction off permits for emissions -- a cap-and-trade system -- raising essential capital for research and development in the process.
In addition, he called for national renewable energy standards for utilities, incentives for energy efficiency and an overhaul of the nation's electric transmission grid. Overall, he said, "I believe all these things have a good chance of happening this year." We also need creative new ways of financing energy improvements, he said: Right now, the utility industry spends less money on R&D than the dog food industry.
While global climate change continues to be politically controversial, Inslee said, energy issues overall cut across partisan divides, because the issue of energy security "unites everyone in the country." And the present financial situation behooves us to "turn this crisis into green," he said, "not just ecologically, but economically."
Hockfield opened the conference by paying tribute to the student leaders who plan and manage every aspect of the annual gathering, which she said has become "one of the premier energy conferences in the nation." The event gives the world "an inkling of what MIT students are capable of," she said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 11, 2009 (download PDF).