Tuning the energy innovation engine at MIT

This year's MIT Energy conference provided showcase for energy entrepreneurs as investors and executives grappled with how to make giant energy business cleaner.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read

BOSTON--The MIT Energy Conference here on Saturday covered a little bit of everything--"China speed," climate change, financing gaps, government policy, nuclear and natural gas, and, of course, science experiments--as entrepreneurs, business people, and academics tried to get their arms around big-picture energy challenges.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has become a hotbed for clean-energy innovation over the past four years, attracting students and faculty to the field, some of whom have spun out promising companies.

Driving toward a cleaner energy future

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At a showcasethere, local companies and researchers working in wind, solar, biofuels, storage, and efficiency displayed some of their ongoing work. But at the conference, discussion focused more on conventional energy sources, policy, and financing.

Science fiction?
The nature of global energy picture is well understood: growing demand in coming years, particularly from developing countries, is expected to result in more fossil fuel consumption and continue to increase greenhouse gas emissions. Governments around the world are expected to devise policies that improve national security by cutting imports of oil and other fuels.

Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the International Energy Agency, at the MIT Energy conference in Boston. Martin LaMonica/CNET

But Nobuo Tanaka, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, gave a lunchtime talk that cast those general trends into actual numbers. And the outlook, to put it gently, is sobering. The IEA, which was established after the oil shocks of the 1970s to manage the strategic oil reserves for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries, compiles statistics on energy and future projections for supply and demand.

Stabilizing carbon dioxide levels at 450 parts per million in the atmosphere--a level that is projected to result in an average global temperature rise of about two degrees Celsius--would require an "energy and environment revolution" with investment in the trillions of dollars, Tanaka said.

Among the technology assumptions in that scenario are a cost on carbon emissions, energy efficiency measures at large scale, and a massive build-out of low-polluting energy generation. That includes the construction of 18 nuclear power plants, 17,000 wind turbines, two or three huge hydroelectric dam projects, and 94 concentrating solar power plants every year between now and 2030.

"This is the scale and magnitude of the infrastructure investment...Can we do that? he said. Without large-scale deployment, the target of 450 parts per million is "science fiction," Tanaka said.

China speed
It's well known that China's rapid economic growth is being fueled by a massive expansion of energy consumption and that the country has deep reserves of coal. But a panel of experts on China argued that China is becoming not just a giant consumer of energy, but a producer of energy technology as well.

Chinese manufacturers have become global players in solar, wind, and batteries, aided by national policies that encouraged rapid deployment of these technologies. But Chinese government leaders have a more holistic approach to clean energy, which also includes investment in research and development, said Julian Wong, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

"As China's place in the world rises and it gains strength economically and politically, it has experienced a growing sense of insecurity that drives a sense of being self sufficient, not just in energy but also science and technology," he said.

In nuclear power, for example, Chinese companies are deploying technologies originally developed at other countries and improving on them, said Andrew Kadak, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. In China, there are 26 nuclear plants under construction, while there are about that many in consideration in the U.S. "While we're talking about government loan guarantees, what to do with nuclear waste, China is building," Kadak said.

Differences in the political system are one reason that China moves so fast, said Hongmei Zhang, deputy general manager at the center for technology strategy and development at Chinese power supplier ENN Group. For example, the government plans to implement another five-year plan for energy starting in 2012.

"There are some cultural differences. To be honest, Chinese people tend to listen better. When our president Hu says something, we say, 'Yes, sir,'" she said. But in the U.S., people respond to directions by saying "Says who?" or offering second thoughts, she said.

Despite China's break-neck industrial build-out, the country faces a number of challenges before it will become the "cradle of new energy technology," said Ning Li, dean of the school of energy research at Xiamen University in China, which is doing research on nuclear, wind, and bioenergy.

"A great deal of work is going on but energy technology takes a long time to be accepted," he said. "(China) stands a very good chance to (make new energy and environment technology) for the world. And in the process, we will all profit and benefit from it."

A successful financial formula?
In the U.S., the federal government has pumped tens of billions of dollars into electric car battery manufacturing, smart grid programs, and energy research through the ARPA-E agency.

But that doesn't mean that entrepreneurs and investors have cracked the code on how to successfully fund a green tech start-up. Because there's been a learning process, many venture capital investors probably would not make the same investments today as they would have a few years ago, said Steven Taub, senior vice president of investment strategy at GE Financial Services.

During a session on financing, conference attendees identified a number of gaps in the "energy investment pipeline," ranging from finding early-stage ideas to project finance for large-scale deployment projects.

Panelists agreed that national governments have a significant role to play, but they could not agree on what exactly that role should be. In general, there was consensus that the U.S. federal government should fund more research and development in energy, but less agreement on how to create the conditions for clean-energy industries to grow beyond the labs.

If a start-up company is able to develop a technology that generates electricity lower than the cost of coal, then it will be adopted regardless of government subsidies, argued David Anthony, venture capitalist at 21Ventures.

But the U.S. also needs to provide loan guarantees to companies that want to scale up energy companies and manufacture goods, said Howard Berke, senior adviser of Good Energies and former CEO solar company Konarka, who calls himself a "green Republican."

"It's our Achilles heel as a nation. We don't have a long-term strategy to secure a manufacturing complex in the United States. When we innovate it, somebody else produces it," he said.

Bill Aulet, a senior lecturer on energy innovation at MIT's Sloan School of Management, finished the conference on an optimistic note, saying that entrepreneurs are the most valuable "renewable resource." "We need to solve this problem not with dictates from above but from innovation from below," he said.