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Making the clean energy transition work for everyone

At the 2024 MIT Energy Conference, participants grappled with the key challenges and trends shaping our fight to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
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Sally Kornbluth and Yet-Ming Chiang speak on stage.
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Caption: The Energy Conference featured a keynote discussion between MIT President Sally Kornbluth and MIT’s Kyocera Professor of Ceramics Yet-Ming Chiang, in which Kornbluth discussed her first year at MIT as well as a recently announced, campus-wide effort to solve critical climate problems known as the Climate Project at MIT.
Credits: Photo: Aiyah Josiah-Faeduwor, arewefreelance
About 30 participants pose for a group photo next to a sign that says, “2024 MIT Energy Conference; Short and Long: A Balanced Approach to the Energy Transition.”
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Caption: Participants come from research, industry, government, academia, and the investment community to network and exchange ideas over two days of keynote talks, fireside chats, and panel discussions.
Credits: Photo: Aiyah Josiah-Faeduwor, arewefreelance

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Sally Kornbluth and Yet-Ming Chiang speak on stage.
Caption:
The Energy Conference featured a keynote discussion between MIT President Sally Kornbluth and MIT’s Kyocera Professor of Ceramics Yet-Ming Chiang, in which Kornbluth discussed her first year at MIT as well as a recently announced, campus-wide effort to solve critical climate problems known as the Climate Project at MIT.
Credits:
Photo: Aiyah Josiah-Faeduwor, arewefreelance
About 30 participants pose for a group photo next to a sign that says, “2024 MIT Energy Conference; Short and Long: A Balanced Approach to the Energy Transition.”
Caption:
Participants come from research, industry, government, academia, and the investment community to network and exchange ideas over two days of keynote talks, fireside chats, and panel discussions.
Credits:
Photo: Aiyah Josiah-Faeduwor, arewefreelance

The clean energy transition is already underway, but how do we make sure it happens in a manner that is affordable, sustainable, and fair for everyone?

That was the overarching question at this year’s MIT Energy Conference, which took place March 11 and 12 in Boston and was titled “Short and Long: A Balanced Approach to the Energy Transition.”

Each year, the student-run conference brings together leaders in the energy sector to discuss the progress and challenges they see in their work toward a greener future. Participants come from research, industry, government, academia, and the investment community to network and exchange ideas over two whirlwind days of keynote talks, fireside chats, and panel discussions.

Several participants noted that clean energy technologies are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels, but changing the way the world works requires more than just technology.

“None of this is easy, but I think developing innovative new technologies is really easy compared to the things we’re talking about here, which is how to blend social justice, soft engineering, and systems thinking that puts people first,” Daniel Kammen, a distinguished professor of energy at the University of California at Berkeley, said in a keynote talk. “While clean energy has a long way to go, it is more than ready to transition us from fossil fuels.”

The event also featured a keynote discussion between MIT President Sally Kornbluth and MIT’s Kyocera Professor of Ceramics Yet-Ming Chiang, in which Kornbluth discussed her first year at MIT as well as a recently announced, campus-wide effort to solve critical climate problems known as the Climate Project at MIT.

“The reason I wanted to come to MIT was I saw that MIT has the potential to solve the world’s biggest problems, and first among those for me was the climate crisis,” Kornbluth said. “I’m excited about where we are, I’m excited about the enthusiasm of the community, and I think we’ll be able to make really impactful discoveries through this project.”

Fostering new technologies

Several panels convened experts in new or emerging technology fields to discuss what it will take for their solutions to contribute to deep decarbonization.

“The fun thing and challenging thing about first-of-a-kind technologies is they’re all kind of different,” said Jonah Wagner, principal assistant director for industrial innovation and clean energy in the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy. “You can map their growth against specific challenges you expect to see, but every single technology is going to face their own challenges, and every single one will have to defy an engineering barrier to get off the ground.”

Among the emerging technologies discussed was next-generation geothermal energy, which uses new techniques to extract heat from the Earth’s crust in new places.

A promising aspect of the technology is that it can leverage existing infrastructure and expertise from the oil and gas industry. Many newly developed techniques for geothermal production, for instance, use the same drills and rigs as those used for hydraulic fracturing.

“The fact that we have a robust ecosystem of oil and gas labor and technology in the U.S. makes innovation in geothermal much more accessible compared to some of the challenges we’re seeing in nuclear or direct-air capture, where some of the supply chains are disaggregated around the world,” said Gabrial Malek, chief of staff at the geothermal company Fervo Energy.

Another technology generating excitement — if not net energy quite yet — is fusion, the process of combining, or fusing, light atoms together to form heavier ones for a net energy gain, in the same process that powers the sun. MIT spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) has already validated many aspects of its approach for achieving fusion power, and the company’s unique partnership with MIT was discussed in a panel on the industry’s progress.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of decades of research from the scientific community, and we want to maintain those ties even as we continue developing our technology,” CFS Chief Science Officer Brandon Sorbom PhD ’17 said, noting that CFS is one of the largest company sponsors of research at MIT and collaborates with institutions around the world. “Engaging with the community is a really valuable lever to get new ideas and to sanity check our own ideas.”

Sorbom said that as CFS advances fusion energy, the company is thinking about how it can replicate its processes to lower costs and maximize the technology’s impact around the planet.

“For fusion to work, it has to work for everyone,” Sorbom said. “I think the affordability piece is really important. We can’t just build this technological jewel that only one class of nations can afford. It has to be a technology that can be deployed throughout the entire world.”

The event also gave students — many from MIT — a chance to learn more about careers in energy and featured a startup showcase, in which dozens of companies displayed their energy and sustainability solutions.

“More than 700 people are here from every corner of the energy industry, so there are so many folks to connect with and help me push my vision into reality,” says GreenLIB CEO Fred Rostami, whose company recycles lithium-ion batteries. “The good thing about the energy transition is that a lot of these technologies and industries overlap, so I think we can enable this transition by working together at events like this.”

A focused climate strategy

Kornbluth noted that when she came to MIT, a large percentage of students and faculty were already working on climate-related technologies. With the Climate Project at MIT, she wanted to help ensure the whole of those efforts is greater than the sum of its parts.

The project is organized around six distinct missions, including decarbonizing energy and industry, empowering frontline communities, and building healthy, resilient cities. Kornbluth says the mission areas will help MIT community members collaborate around multidisciplinary challenges. Her team, which includes a committee of faculty advisors, has begun to search for the leads of each mission area, and Kornbluth said she is planning to appoint a vice president for climate at the Institute.

“I want someone who has the purview of the whole Institute and will report directly to me to help make sure this project stays on track,” Kornbluth explained.

In his conversation about the initiative with Kornbluth, Yet-Ming Chiang said projects will be funded based on their potential to reduce emissions and make the planet more sustainable at scale.

“Projects should be very high risk, with very high impact,” Chiang explained. “They should have a chance to prove themselves, and those efforts should not be limited by resources, only by time.”

In discussing her vision of the climate project, Kornbluth alluded to the “short and long” theme of the conference.

“It’s about balancing research and commercialization,” Kornbluth said. “The climate project has a very variable timeframe, and I think universities are the sector that can think about the things that might be 30 years out. We have to think about the incentives across the entire innovation pipeline and how we can keep an eye on the long term while making sure the short-term things get out rapidly.”

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