At COP26, 151 nations agreed to accelerate the fight against the climate crisis. Less than a week later, speakers at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) 2021 Annual Research Conference offered insights about the specific technologies, policies, and economic drivers that could help turn those promises into real change.
Over three days, Nov. 17-19, the conference engaged a cross-section of stakeholders from academia, industry, and non-profit organizations under the theme “Getting to net-zero by 2050.” For the second year in a row, the participants attended virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
An urgent need for systems-level thinking and rapid deployment
As Robert C. Armstrong, MITEI’s director and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering, explained in his opening remarks, meeting global energy needs while minimizing environmental impacts and mitigating climate change increasingly requires an integrated, systems-level approach.
“Certainly, technology is crucial. It’s going to be important to get a more robust suite of technologies and keep driving the cost of those technologies down,” he said. “It’s [also] going to be important to have the right policies in place, be those federal, state, or local policies. And it’s going to be important that we think in a systems context so we understand regionally what energy resources are available in that region, how that energy will be used in a given region, what’s the policy framework regionally, and what’s the social license for certain options and how does that vary regionally.”
Armstrong added that this type of system-level thinking is what inspired MITEI’s new Future Energy Systems Center, which uses advanced technoeconomic modeling and analysis to investigate the role and impact of emerging low-carbon technologies across end-use sectors. The Center opened in October after being announced in spring 2021 as part of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade.
Throughout the conference, panelists reiterated the need for an integrated approach to address the climate crisis. For example, when asked to name the greatest barrier to energy research, Betar Gallant, an associate professor and the ABS Career Development Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, appealed for critical thinking about today’s research ecosystem and supporting more rapid development.
“We have to keep doing fundamental research…but we don’t have open-ended timeframes anymore, frankly,” Gallant said. “We need academic environments where we can do the fundamental research but also start to prototype and start to learn by actually trying to build integrated systems; not just working on one side of a reaction or one part of a process, but looking at how it couples into other parts needed to make a truly viable process.”
While speaking on the panel titled, “On the road to net-zero: Opportunities and challenges,” Laura Cozzi, the chief energy modeler at the International Energy Agency, also stressed that the emission reduction targets recommended by the IPCC aren’t achievable unless global efforts accelerate.
“The key challenge for this decade is not necessarily a technology one,” she said. “We do have the technologies in our pockets to achieve this 45% initial reduction [in emissions by 2030]. What we need is policies and financing…and to fast forward on deployment.”
Cozzi identified three pillars for urgent focus: decarbonization of the power sector, increased electrification of cars, and improved energy productivity. After that, the next phase of the clean energy transition will require an infusion of innovation, especially around batteries, low-carbon fuels, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and negative emissions, she said.
Agustín Delgado, the chief innovation and sustainability officer at Spain-based multinational electric utility Iberdrola, echoed Cozzi’s call for immediate and massive deployment of technologies to decarbonize the power system, but said emission reduction goals will only be met if costs decrease and innovation ramps up now.
“We are thinking about capturing CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions in the future when we have the possibility to really reduce CO2 emissions today at a much lower cost,” he said. “We are thinking about very expensive technologies in the 2040s and it would probably be much cheaper to focus on big emitters like coal today. Sometimes it is my concern that we are talking about tech optimism in the 2040s when we can do things today.”
Promising energy research projects and technologies
Throughout the conference, speakers discussed innovative energy research projects and technologies currently in development. Among the highlights was a panel dedicated to MITEI Seed Fund projects, followed by another with updates about MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges.
“The Seed Fund embodies one of MITEI’s core tenets, elevating promising early-stage energy research across a wide range of disciplines,” explained Martha Broad, the executive director at MITEI and moderator of the first panel. Supported by MITEI members and donors, the Seed Fund has provided support for 194 energy-focused projects with grants totaling over $26 million to researchers including new faculty from across MIT’s five schools, the College of Computing, and 28 departments and centers, she added.
Five speakers presented updates on their MITEI Seed Fund projects, which include a novel building-grid optimization framework, a strategy to immobilize electrocatalysts for improved CO2 reduction efficiency, development of models for building hurricane-resilient smart grids, and work on achieving low-cost negative emissions by using concentration swing absorption.
MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges are part of its Plan for Climate Action. These challenges bring together faculty and researchers across disciplines to address what they perceive as the major impediments to getting to net-zero by 2050. The speakers offered updates on decarbonizing transportation (particularly the difficult to decarbonize aspects of aviation, shipping, and freight), strengthening the global energy infrastructure with nuclear batteries, and decarbonizing industry.
“Industry is a huge contributor of CO2 emissions and to be credible in addressing climate change, we have to address this sector,” explained Bilge Yildiz, the Breene M. Kerr (1951) Professor in the Departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. “Just four of these industrial products—ammonia, ethylene, cement, steel—already contribute to 15% of current CO2 emissions worldwide, and we see a great opportunity in using electricity to decarbonize the sector. Beyond just using electricity for energy input, we believe electrochemistry gives us very exciting and tangible opportunities to advance in this direction. And we have assembled a very strong team going all the way from atoms to systems to dollars to address this challenge, and we are very excited to get started together.”
In other panels, speakers addressed the role hydrogen may play in the energy transition, innovation in thermal energy storage and conversion, and the power grid’s future build, operational, and resiliency requirements.
The conference also showcased MIT undergraduate student research at two poster sessions. Online participants attended presentations by undergraduates engaged in energy research across a wide range of topics, including resilient infrastructure; industrial processes; innovative design; computational modeling of energy systems and processes; and food, water, and energy in the developing world.
Will technology save us?
MITEI offered conference attendees a glimpse into how today’s energy research may impact the future by including a panel with the provocative title, “Will technology save us? Potential game-changing solutions and their timeframes.” During this discussion, speakers shared their perspectives on three specific solutions—low-carbon fuels; nuclear fusion; and carbon capture, utilization, and storage—all of which show promise, but also significant challenges related to cost, scaling, the limitations of existing infrastructure, and public acceptance.
Once again, the panelists circled back to cross-industry integrations and system-level thinking as the foundation of a clean energy future. For instance, Yuriy Román, the Robert T. Haslam (1911) Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, pointed out that traditional conversion strategies will need to be re-imagined for integration into the distributed electricity system of the future.
“If we think about coupling our hydrogen generation with electrons that are sourced from solar and wind, plus the opportunity to use new types of catalysts…we might be able to deploy now some of the conversion strategies—that traditionally we have thought would be only developed at large scales—in a more modular distributed fashion so that we can append them to, say, a biorefinery or other sources where we can concentrate CO2,” Román explained.
MITEI also used the conference to preview its Future of Energy Storage study, slated for publication in early 2022. These “Future of” studies are comprehensive, interdisciplinary MIT analyses that shape and influence policy, technology development, and future research.
Howard Gruenspecht, a senior research economist at MITEI, previewed the study’s key takeaways, including analyses of how storage enables deep decarbonization of electricity systems that rely heavily on wind and solar generation, areas for R&D focus and the benefits of repurposing existing assets, the role of hydrogen in electricity sector storage, the need for advanced analytic tools, cost recovery, load flexibility challenges for variable renewable energy-dominant systems with storage, and the importance of storage for emerging market developing economies.
“The modeling in the study suggests that it may be optimal to employ several different storage technologies, including facilities with lower energy capacity costs and lower round trip efficiency having, on average, longer duration as well as longer and less frequent charge-discharge cycles,” Gruenspecht said.
Room for improvement on climate change policy
On the policy front, several speakers discussed how and why different policies impact getting to net-zero by 2050. Joseph E. Aldy, a professor of the practice of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, set the stage for the panel discussion on “Climate change policy going forward,” by outlining U.S. mission goals and performance to date. He explained that in 2009 President Obama pledged to reduce U.S. emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 and that preliminary estimates of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions suggest that the U.S. may meet that target—in part because the pandemic caused a drop in economic activity and a subsequent decrease in coal use.
In spring 2020, President Biden pledged to cut emissions at least in half by 2030 relative to the 2005 benchmark, but as Aldy pointed out, achieving that goal will require not only technological advances, but also various policy and economic drivers. After describing the three major ways policy can help reduce emissions—subsidizing investment in low- and zero-emission technologies, prescribing low- and zero-emission technologies through regulations, and raising the price of fossil energy—he noted that there can be significant, interrelated political, legal, and economic risks to each of these and that to move forward, we need new approaches.
“There are a lot of concerns about using these 20th century tools where we’re doing technology-specific subsidies or we may be doing industry-specific regulations,” Aldy said. “When we think about 21st century technologies and the 21st century energy economy, we’re trying to break down the barriers between industries.” Continuing with traditional approaches makes it more difficult to drive emission reductions throughout the economy and prohibits the accelerated transformation needed across all sectors, he added.
Despite the hurdles facing U.S. policy makers, Sergey Paltsev, the deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a senior research scientist at MITEI, said that U.S. leadership is critical for global emission reductions and that by participating in COP26, the U.S. created additional incentives for other countries to increase their efforts to address climate change.
In his re-cap of COP26, Paltsev listed numerous points of progress, including the pledge to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, the agreement to reduce global methane emissions by 30% by 2030, India’s pledge to be net-zero by 2070, the release of the U.S.’s long-term strategy for net-zero emissions by 2050, agreement on rules for the global carbon market under the Paris Agreement’s Article 6, and the joint statement by the U.S. and China emphasizing the need for aggressive scaling of CO2 mitigation this decade.
“It’s extremely important to not just focus on 2050 long-term targets, but on the actions which have to happen rather soon,” Paltsev said. “Some were disappointed that [the pledges at COP26] weren’t aggressive enough; but I think realistically, we are quite successful in trying to make sure that we are not providing false starts and false solutions. We are increasing pressures on emitters and developing the mechanisms for global emission reduction in the most efficient way. There is always room for improvement, and that’s why I’m already looking forward to the next COP.”
Looking ahead to continued conversations and accelerated collaboration
Armstrong struck a similarly optimistic chord in his closing remarks at the end of the three-day meeting.
“I hope that we use this [conference] not just as informative, but as a launchpad for new work we might do together,” he said. “[There are] lots of different ways we can take what we’ve learned in these sessions and think how we can work together to speed up the move to net-zero. That’s been a very important recurring thing throughout the meeting: It’s not just enough to know where you’re going and how you might get there. We need to know how we can go faster than we have done historically.”