In the fall of 2006, we launched the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI)—committing the Institute’s expertise and capabilities to help meet the world’s energy challenges through research, education, campus energy management, and outreach. As we celebrate the Initiative’s fifth anniversary, it seems appropriate to reflect on MITEI’s accomplishments, but as importantly, also on its future opportunities to make meaningful contributions to energy sustainability in a rapidly changing energy marketplace.
By design, MITEI’s research, analysis, and education activities have focused both on innovations for conventional energy sources and on new technologies that could help transform global energy systems. This dual, adaptive approach has been essential to MITEI’s success, promoting the development of high-impact energy technology options in a persistently evolving landscape. Consider how the global energy marketplace has changed in the last five years alone:
In 2006, global energy demand was soaring. It has now stagnated, as many regions and nations grapple with a severe economic downturn. And yet oil prices remain stubbornly high for a slow economy, underscoring both concerns about the security of oil supply and the need to develop affordable, scalable alternative transportation fuels.
The state of the economy has also intensified interest in boosting economic productivity. Research to improve energy efficiency, increase affordable energy supplies, and develop advanced “green tech” manufacturing technologies could help enhance productivity and competitiveness.
In the early days of MITEI, we were hopeful that the United States and other key global players would take concrete, concerted steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But progress under the Kyoto Protocol appears to be stalled, and climate legislation failed to pass the US Congress. This lack of consensus argues for greater focus on developing low-carbon technologies that meet multiple policy objectives, not only greenhouse gas mitigation.
The US economic stimulus package funded extensive energy research; now this funding has ended, and the US economic malaise has called into question investments in R&D. The changed economic environment has created uncertainty about funding to drive energy innovation and clean technology deployment.
Renewable Energy Realities
Renewable energy technologies now confront the realities of economic stress, high costs, and growing political opposition to mandates or subsidies. Whether through new materials, economies of scale, or new distribution methods, renewable energy research must focus, above all, on cost reduction.
Conventional Energy Realities
In 2006, North America was thought to be running out of natural gas. The United States is now the No. 1 gas producer in the world, in large part due to the development of affordable shale gas. Recent assessments suggest that global shale reserves could significantly alter the geopolitics of gas. Understanding this changing dynamic is an essential avenue of analysis; the MITEI-sponsored Future of Natural Gas study has provided an influential voice in that discussion.
On the other hand, repercussions from the Macondo oil spill are still being felt, and, in the wake of Fukushima, the long-term future of nuclear energy is uncertain. Conventional fuels, however, will be used for decades to come. Mitigating their environmental impacts has been—and should continue to be— a key research focus area at MITEI.
Although the energy landscape has changed dramatically in the last five years, MITEI has maintained remarkable momentum, through a consistent but inherently flexible strategy.
Partnerships with Industries
From the start, MITEI committed to meaningful impacts on the energy marketplace. The enormous capital investments of energy industries position them to help us understand global energy markets, so MITEI sought solid, long-term strategic industry partnerships. For their part, industry players quickly saw how much they had to gain from MIT’s enormous research capabilities and infrastructure, capacity for creativity, and track record in developing game-changing technologies and transferring them into the marketplace.
This industry-linked approach has proved very successful. MITEI now has more than 60 members spanning the innovation value chain, 24 of which sponsor research or analysis, and all of which share our commitment to energy innovation, education, and technically grounded policy analysis. MITEI’s members support projects in almost all critical areas of energy research, and in all five MIT Schools. Significant areas of focus include advanced solar, energy storage, hydrocarbons, nanotechnology, modeling and simulation of complex systems, and many more. Almost 300 MIT faculty and senior researchers are now engaged in this research—a powerful concentration of intellect, creativity, vision, and commitment.
Growing Student Opportunities
To develop the next generation of energy and environmental leaders, MITEI members and sponsors have supported almost 200 graduate fellows in energy in the last five years. MITEI, its members, and other MITEI supporters have also funded a significant number of “UROPs”— students using MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program to take part in front-line, faculty-directed energy research.
Reflecting MIT’s interest in shaping new energy leaders, just over two years ago MITEI launched the Energy Studies Minor, which allows students to balance their intense focus on a major area of study, from chemistry to mechanical engineering to economics, with an informed appreciation of the multidisciplinary questions that define the world of energy. The minor—already one of the largest at MIT—is attracting more and more students each year, all focused on meeting the world’s energy challenges. With generous philanthropic support, we continue to develop, refine, and add to energy course offerings.
Finally, MITEI is working to establish endowed chairs to attract new senior energy faculty to MIT. This issue of Energy Futures includes a profile of Christopher R. Knittel, holder of the new William Barton Rogers Chair in Energy Economics.
Campus Energy Efficiency
Beyond research and education, MITEI’s Campus Energy Task Force (CETF) has helped MIT “walk the talk,” to use energy on campus wisely. New conservation and efficiency measures have already saved the Institute millions in energy costs. The CETF is also turning the campus into a learning laboratory for energy conservation and efficiency by supporting a range of student projects—from dorm electricity competitions, to waste heat recovery, to programs that promote energy saving behavior.
Finally, MITEI has advanced a series of comprehensive, multidisciplinary studies, led by MIT faculty: the Future of Nuclear Power; the Future of Coal; the Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle; and the Future of Natural Gas. Designed to provide technically grounded analyses to inform strategies for achieving a clean energy future, these multiyear studies have already had significant impact, illustrated most recently when the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing titled The MIT Future of Natural Gas Study. Additional Future of… studies are in the works, on the electric grid and solar energy. These studies represent only one of MITEI’s outreach efforts, which also include colloquia, a symposium series, a seminar series, and a range of activities for MITEI members, students, faculty, staff, and the public at large.
The Future of… MITEI
Since 2006, MITEI’s work has been far-reaching, influential, and inspiring. To prepare for the unpredictable challenges and opportunities of the next five years, MITEI is seeking input from the MIT community and other supporters on the best ways to advance the research, education, outreach, and policy analyses we need to help transform the world’s energy future. This continued engagement will ensure that MITEI remains positioned to face the energy challenges ahead.
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