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At MIT Energy Conference, Innovators Talk Renewables

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MIT’s annual Energy Conference, held last Friday and Saturday, featured an impressive array of young engineers, scientists, and renewable energy entrepreneurs. It also included a sizeable number of more established players in the energy field. And the question left hanging at the end of the conference was whether this group of inventors and dreamers could innovate fast enough, and create green energy cheaply enough, to prove wrong the forecasts of the establishment that the world is going to continue to burn fossil fuels for a long time to come.

The theme of the conference, held in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, was “Insight and Innovation in Uncertain Times.” While noting that venture capital funding for clean technology reached an all-time high of $4.3 billion in the U.S. last year, outgoing MIT president Susan Hockfield nevertheless laid out some of the challenges to alternative energy innovation. These include the economic slowdown and government cuts to green energy programs, the diminished prospects for adopting a climate policy in the U.S. and on a global level, and the boom in exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels, like shale gas.

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Peter C. Evans, director of Global Strategy and Planning for General Electric’s GE Energy, said the company was forecasting that the contribution of fossil fuels to the global energy mix would only decline from 85 percent today to 80 percent in 2025, an estimate that is dismal news for those concerned about global warming. Richard H. Jones, deputy executive director of the International Energy Agency, said, “Regardless of whether we like it, we are going to remain dependent on fossil fuels for a long time.”

Clearly, many of the MIT students, alumni, faculty, and 30-something green business people who attended the conference did not like it, and they painted a different picture of the not-so-distant future. A three-hour discussion of solar power was dominated by glass-half-full entrepreneurs and experts, whose optimism was not dampened by the current glut in the solar market — and the collapse of numerous U.S. solar companies — because of Chinese overproduction.

 

Chief among the solar apostles was Adam Lorenz, a founding member of the MIT startup 1366 Technologies, which has invented a new process that produces ultra-thin crystalline photovoltaic (PV) wafers from molten silicon. The company has cut waste — and costs — in half by not slicing wafers from a silicon block, the conventional technology. Lorenz, whose company recently received a $150 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy, noted that solar power costs have plummeted from $5 a kilowatt hour three decades ago to 10 to 15 cents a kilowatt hour today, and he predicted that rapid technological innovations will cut costs in half again in the near future.

“In the next five to eight years, we’ll be at a point where people considering adding capacity to the electric grid will not look at coal or nuclear,” Lorenz told the conference. “Solar PV will be the choice for countries, especially developing ones… Five years from now the story will be written in terms of solar being the leader in the cost of electricity generation.” He predicted that by 2025, solar could account for 50 to 90 percent of new electricity generating capacity in the U.S.

Wind Farm

image via Shutterstock

Minh Le, the acting deputy manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Program, said the department’s Sun Shot Initiative aimed to reduce the cost of solar power production three- to four-fold by 2020. Le said that for the foreseeable future, some government support for renewable energy technologies was vital. He noted that Germany, which has robust policies supporting the development of solar energy, installed 3 gigawatts of solar power last December alone, while in the U.S. only 1.8 gigawatts were installed in all of 2011. Solar power now provides only .2 percent of U.S. electricity generating capacity, said Le, adding that there is “lots of opportunity for tremendous growth.”

The ultimate goal, Le and other speakers said, was not to have to rely on shifting government policies that put a price on carbon or subsidize various forms of energy, but rather to use the brainpower of people at academic institutions and corporations worldwide to make solar power and other forms of renewable energy cheaper all on their own. “Imagine a world where prices are low enough through technological innovations that you don’t need these artificial policy constructs,” said Le.

Daniel Nocera, professor of chemistry at MIT and a founder ofSun Catalytix — a company attempting to mimic photosynthesis to create and store energy — said that the real breakthroughs in renewable energy innovation are likely to come from engineers and scientists in the developing world. With three billion poor people and three billion more on the way this century, the developing world will “kick the hell out of you” in the energy innovation field, Nocera told MIT students. “They will be deciding the energy future,” he told the conference. “We’ll let them choose what the future will be like and you will be following them.”

At the so-called Energy Showcase, MIT students and faculty, joined by other scientists and businessmen, displayed dozens of new technologies, ranging from more effective energy storage, to better harnessing wave and wind power, to changing consumer behavior to reduce electricity use. Some of the projects were a direct outgrowth of MIT’s Energy Initiative, which since its establishment in 2006 has raised $350 million for energy research and involved more than 25 percent of the university’s faculty, Hockfield said.

Nocera told the students that if they really want to help President Obama and other leaders interested in a transition to a renewable energy economy, then “do your job, which is discovery.”

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