Energy interns share remote summer research experiences

Kathryn Luu    ·    November 25, 2020    ·    MITEI

During summer 2020, chemical engineering major Kelly Wu ’22 interned at ExxonMobil and organized a newsletter that connected the summer energy interns and highlighted clean energy opportunities. Credit: Amulya Suresh

A newsletter series spearheaded by Kelly Wu ’22, a chemical engineering major, allowed MIT students and recent alums who participated in summer energy internships to share their experiences working on diverse clean energy projects across academia, national labs, industry, and more.

Each week, the 10 participants in the series answered a set of questions tied to a weekly theme, such as how MIT courses translated to their internship projects. In addition, every newsletter featured a longer “blog post” entry from one student that offered their thoughts on the energy space and why they are excited to be part of it.

“We are at a turning point in energy, where the decisions we make now will have lasting impacts on our energy mix for decades into the future,” writes Wu in her blog post. “There is no denying that severe consequences from climate change will come if we do not rapidly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we emit as a society…Whether it is the policies we pass, the technologies we research, or the companies we invest or work in, our decisions now across all sectors of energy will determine the extent of climate change we leave for our future generations to grapple with.”

Here are a few excerpts from the “Summer Energy Experiences” newsletter series. Read the complete series.

Anthony Cheng. Credit: Wendy Lu

Anthony Cheng SB ’20

Major: Materials Science and Engineering

Summer position: Eloranta Fellow, MIT Peter J. Eloranta Summer Fellowship

Q Describe your summer project.

A I aimed to answer the questions: What significant technical and business innovations have been made in the industrial sector to achieve decarbonization? What are modern change-makers doing nowadays, and how can they learn from the past? Through a series of interview-style podcasts and long-form radio pieces, I bring to light both human and technical elements that go into the cleantech innovator’s journey, weaving a story of progress and change in the industrial sector. Listen to my podcast.

Q Why did you choose to do something in the energy field this summer?

A The global climate crisis is real and looming, and humans are not doing enough to prevent catastrophic changes. Of critical importance to the issue of deep decarbonization is the industrial sector. Industrial processes account for about one fourth of global GDP and employment, along with roughly one fourth of the world’s emissions. I wanted to spend the summer trying to better understand this sector.

Q What has been the most surprising fact you’ve learned within the energy space you’re working in?

A Just how significantly China’s rapid industrialization in the 2000s has affected global emissions. China now produces 70% of the world’s cement and 50% of its steel, at much higher emissions per quantity than western industry. If the developing world—especially India—develops at the same pace, it’s going to be impossible to keep industrial emissions from exploding, much less having them decrease.

Q What is one impression you’ve had about how your group thinks about energy as a whole?

A All the folks I’ve talked to recognize that the industrial decarbonization process is very important if we are to reach net-zero carbon emissions. Unfortunately, they also generally agree that much more scholarship as well as resources are needed to create innovation in the sector, which is currently not being deployed at enough scale.

Q If you could learn an entire MIT course in one day right now for either your project or in general, which one would you choose, and why?

A That course would definitely be 14.44 Energy Economics, taught by Christopher Knittel, a professor of applied economics in the MIT Sloan School of Management. I’m very sad I couldn’t participate in this class, as it was at the same time as Valerie Karplus’ 14.47/15.219 Global Energy: Politics, Markets, and Policy. I plan to pursue a PhD that will undoubtedly involve economics, so I’m sad I missed out.

Heidi Li. Credit: Heidi Li

Heidi Li ’22

Major: Materials Science and Engineering

Summer position: Research assistant, the Roosevelt Project (Joint Harvard-MIT project)

Q Describe your summer project.

A I worked on the Roosevelt Project, which looks at ways to decarbonize Pennsylvania, one of the highest natural gas- and coal-producing states. Pennsylvania is charting a path to decrease and ultimately remove carbon emissions, which requires evaluating economic, social, and technological impacts. I’m looking at the dynamics among industry, emissions, and GDP to understand how decarbonization would impact workers and the economy.

Q Why did you choose to do something in the energy field this summer?

A I’m really interested in energy and policy and understanding the economical ways of decarbonizing. Energy is a very diverse field, and I’m interested in the climate aspect of it. I think decarbonization is something that is talked about a lot, but I never knew how nuanced the problem was and how difficult it is to answer. I’m hoping that through this research project, I can glean a better perspective on ways to address this problem. I want to understand how energy is produced, distributed, and used—specifically, where is the highest potential for decarbonization?

Q What has been the most surprising fact you’ve learned within the energy space you’re working in?

A Decarbonization is a highly nuanced issue—and unfortunately, highly politicized…Having a sustainable energy future is dependent on a diverse energy mix, but one that is also accompanied by economic drive (positive cash flows, profitable assets for companies, etc.) and effective policy design. Battling climate change and maintaining environmental stewardship must come from both parties. Policies cannot be introduced and repealed depending on the party that takes office.

Q What is one impression you’ve had about how your group thinks about energy as a whole?

A It’s a very numbers-driven project, so we’ve looked into emissions, employment, and GDP data to ultimately determine which labor group would be hit hardest, given different sets of policies. It’s mostly looking at the byproducts of energy—the emissions and economic gain—rather than the infrastructure and technology or processes, which is what I was used to before.

Q How did you apply what you’ve learned at MIT to your summer experience?

A My energy policy class [has helped me to understand] how policy will affect a region’s GDP or social makeup. Also, learning about the different energy technologies has been helpful in trying to figure out where to put solar, for example, and how people can be incentivized to invest in it.

These excerpts were reprinted with permission of Kelly Wu, Anthony Cheng, and Heidi Li.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.


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