Lessons from energy leaders

IAP course connects MIT and global learners with practitioners and experts

Leda Zimmerman MITEI

MIT engineers and scientists are at the vanguard of developing new technologies to achieve the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But there is more that the MIT community could be contributing, believes Angeliki Diane Rigos PhD ’85, associate director of graduate programs for the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and program manager for the MIT Center for Enhanced Nanofluidic Transport.

“We need to think of ourselves as leading the energy transition, not just participating in it,” she says. “We tend to be siloed at MIT and don’t talk enough to people in the real world.”

To address this shortcoming, Rigos designed the course “Leading the Energy Transition” for January’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) featuring guest instructors with expertise in addressing the complex challenges that arise when low-carbon mandates meet social, political, and economic realities.

“Leading change is difficult, requiring different strategies for different situations and the capacity to adjust to new problems,” says Rigos, whose varied career includes stints as a research scientist, professor, industry consultant, and mentor to clean technology entrepreneurs.

Among the speakers for this virtual IAP class were current and former heads of federal and state government agencies, corporate energy representatives, and MITEI policy and technology experts. “By sharing their individual and organizational perspectives on advancing the energy transition, I hoped to inspire our students to believe they could lead their own initiatives,” says Rigos.

Where the gears are turning

As an economist whose research falls at the intersection of energy, climate, and poverty alleviation, Andrea Cristina Ruiz signed up for the IAP class “to get a survey understanding of the different lenses that could be applied to understand the energy transition,” she says. A manager of the Energy, Environment, and Climate Change Sector at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the time of the course, Ruiz was charged with advancing the use of evidence and promoting evidence-based policy making toward equitable and cost-effective climate change policies and interventions.

“I wanted to see where the gears are turning in scientific, technological, and other communities which are all part of the solution, to understand how I fit in,” says Ruiz, who is now an economist at the Eastern Research Group, an environmental consulting firm. “The course gave me an interdisciplinary, nuanced, and holistic take on key challenges in the energy transition—a transition that is essential if we want to avert the worst impacts of climate change,” she says.

Some of the insights she found particularly useful came from Emre Gençer, a MITEI research scientist who weighs the costs and benefits of new, carbon-reducing technologies based on cradle-to-grave emissions. In his presentation, Gençer outlined the importance of moving as swiftly as possible to an all-electric vehicle fleet.

“We must immediately cut emissions, but how we get there is very important,” he said. “Instead of waiting until we have widespread electric charging infrastructure, we can switch from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) to plug-in hybrids or hybrids immediately.” He also proposed banning ICEVs.

In another session, Christopher Knittel, the George P. Shultz Professor of Energy Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management and deputy director for policy at MITEI, discussed policy options for driving the energy transition. “Climate change represents a case where markets don’t work well,” he noted, pointing to persistent resistance to the idea of a carbon tax.

Saving the planet will mean paying more for clean energy, so distributing this burden equitably will be central to any successful policy, Knittel suggested. “I care deeply not just about efficiency but about the winners and losers associated with climate change policy,” Knittel said. He shared research demonstrating that a small carbon tax, whose dividends are distributed to the most economically vulnerable in society, could have an outsized and rapid impact on emissions.

These presentations “made the dimensions of the climate change problem more accessible,” says Ruiz. “I’m not an expert on decarbonization or electrification, but knowing what policies exist and what economic models can be used will help me ask the right questions,” she says.

Finding a balance

“Leading the Energy Transition” drew several hundred participants over the duration of the course—from current MIT students and MIT alumni to globally based students and professionals eager to glean ideas for their studies and careers. In course entry surveys, many noted their desire to accelerate the energy transition and identified specific interests in economically and politically feasible paths for decarbonizing the electric grid, commercializing nuclear fusion, and achieving climate justice.

Some students sought a sense of the speakers’ personal experiences managing their day-to-day responsibilities and expectations. “What tactics do you find to balance pragmatism about the timelines of technological development with excitement over opportunities for shorter-term impacts?” asked Katherine Papageorge, a fellow in the MIT System Design and Management master’s program.

“You can be scared of the scale of the challenge, but finding solutions for the future is really the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Lene Hviid, the global key account manager–metals at Shell Energy. “When people come to tell me all the reasons something can’t work, I tell them I want to hear how we make it work.” Hviid also noted that “a lot of technology moves fast, and what we thought we couldn’t do two years ago is happening today.”

The next generation of leaders in the energy transition must cultivate a unique set of skills, including “a significant amount of patience because no solution is perfect,” said Joanna Troy, the director of energy policy and planning at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Her job, which involves expanding clean energy across the state and region, requires listening to stakeholders with competing demands.

“The roadmap is always changing, and you need to maintain a certain internal calm, focusing on making decisions with the evidence you have in front of you, and then evaluating and restarting the problem multiple times,” she said.

Course participants had ample class time to question practitioners such as Troy and Robert Ethier, the vice president of system planning at ISO New England, not just on the specifics of their jobs but for a glimpse of the future—whether widespread adoption of electric heat pumps, generation of green hydrogen, or a massive buildout of new transmission lines.

What does history teach us?

But instructors also cautioned participants that technological fixes for the future cannot in themselves deliver net-zero carbon results, and even good policy can get sidetracked. Emeritus Institute Professor John M. Deutch, who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and in a number of positions for the U.S. Department of Energy—including director of energy research, acting assistant secretary for energy technology, and undersecretary of the department—offered “good and bad lessons from the past 50 years on the country’s judgment and pursuit of policies around promising energy technologies.”

The Clean Air Act, first passed by Congress in 1963 and then amended in 1970, can be marked a success, he said, since the monetary benefits of reducing pollution were much greater than the expense. But Deutch added that the constant turmoil of American politics, not to mention the threat of wars and economic disruptions, makes it generally more difficult “to organize ourselves to go after big technological changes,” he said. “Without harmony, it’s hard to solve problems, and in the U.S. currently, we don’t have much harmony.”

Students pressed Deutch on his apparently gloomy take on the likelihood of securing society’s carbon reduction goals. Chumani Mokoena, a master’s student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, asked whether fusion energy and conventional nuclear energy, along with renewables, might “achieve a clean and sustainable economy in three to five decades.” Deutch counseled those in the class to “be careful about silver bullets” and that society must “have good public participation to understand and support such efforts.”

To Chinenye Nwosu, who works in the energy industry in Nigeria, this was a clear call to leadership: “In countries where the mix of power-generation structures is not improving as quickly as we would like, we need to educate people,” she said. “It will be a lot of work, but we must organize to demand concrete action from [both] campaigning and elected politicians toward achieving net zero.”

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.

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