Clean energy transition benefits all stakeholders

The ongoing transition to clean energy is a critical topic, but how can we ensure it progresses affordably, sustainably, and equitably for all?

This year’s MIT Energy Conference, themed “Short and Long: A Balanced Approach to the Energy Transition,” addressed this overarching question. Held in Boston on March 11 and 12, the conference drew leaders from various sectors within the energy industry to deliberate on the advancements and obstacles on the path to a more environmentally friendly future.

Annually, this student-organized event acts as a platform for professionals in research, industry, government, academia, and investments to connect and exchange thoughts over two days filled with keynote addresses, fireside chats, and panel conversations.

It was highlighted by several participants that clean energy technologies are already economically competitive with conventional fossil fuels, emphasizing the need for a wider transformation beyond technological innovations.

“Developing innovative technologies is comparatively simple when compared to the challenges of integrating social justice, soft engineering, and prioritizing people in our systems thinking approach,” remarked Daniel Kammen, a revered energy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during his keynote session. “While clean energy has room to grow, it stands ready to displace fossil fuels.”

The conference also featured a notable keynote exchange between MIT President Sally Kornbluth and Ceramics Professor Yet-Ming Chiang, where Kornbluth shared insights on her inaugural year at MIT and a recent initiative aimed at addressing critical climate issues known as the Climate Project at MIT.

“My decision to join MIT was fueled by its potential to tackle global challenges, with climate change being foremost among them,” expressed Kornbluth. “I am eager about our current progress, the community’s zeal, and I believe we will make significant breakthroughs through this project.”

Embracing Technological Innovations

Various panels at the conference brought together experts in new and emerging technology domains to deliberate on the contribution of their solutions towards deep decarbonization.

Discussing first-of-its-kind technologies, Jonah Wagner, the principal assistant director for industrial innovation and clean energy at the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, emphasized the unique challenges each technology faces and the need to overcome engineering hurdles.

One of the exciting technologies deliberated upon was next-generation geothermal energy, which explores novel methods to harness heat from the Earth’s crust in previously unexplored regions.

An appealing aspect of this technology is its ability to leverage the existing infrastructure and expertise of the oil and gas sector. Many newly developed geothermal production techniques utilize similar equipment and procedures to those employed in hydraulic fracturing.

“The U.S.’s well-established oil and gas labor and technology ecosystem makes geothermal innovation more accessible compared to the global supply chain hurdles faced in nuclear or direct-air capture technologies,” noted Gabrial Malek, the chief of staff at geothermal firm Fervo Energy.

Another technology that sparked interest, despite not yet achieving a net energy contribution, is fusion—a process akin to the sun’s energy production by fusing light atoms to form heavier ones. MIT’s Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) has validated many aspects of its fusion power approach with a distinctive collaboration model with MIT.

“We are building upon decades of scientific research and maintaining strong ties with the scientific community to refine our technology,” remarked CFS’s Chief Science Officer, Brandon Sorbom PhD ’17, underscoring CFS’s extensive research collaborations with MIT and global institutions. “Engaging with the community offers valuable insights and feedback to refine our concepts.”

Sorbom further emphasized CFS’s commitment to advancing fusion energy with a global perspective on cost-efficiency and widespread accessibility of the technology.

“For fusion to be viable, it must be accessible to all,” Sorbom asserted. “Affordability is crucial; we aim to develop a technology that can be deployed globally.”

The conference also served as a platform for students, predominantly from MIT, to explore career opportunities in the energy sector and featured a startup showcase, spotlighting numerous companies showcasing their energy and sustainability solutions.

“With over 700 industry participants, there’s an extensive networking opportunity to translate our visions into reality,” stated Fred Rostami, CEO of GreenLIB, a company specializing in lithium-ion battery recycling. “Collaboration across technologies and industries can facilitate this energy transition, demonstrating the inherent synergies within the sector.”

A Targeted Climate Initiative

Reflecting on her tenure at MIT, Kornbluth acknowledged the substantial number of students and faculty already engaged in climate-focused research. Through the Climate Project at MIT, she aims to channel these endeavors towards a cohesive and impactful collective effort.

Structured around six core missions encompassing energy and industry decarbonization, empowering frontline communities, and creating sustainable cities, the project fosters collaboration among MIT stakeholders to address multidisciplinary challenges. Kornbluth’s team, supported by a faculty advisory committee, has commenced the search for mission leads, with plans to appoint a climate vice president at the Institute.

“The climate project requires oversight from a designated Institute-wide role reporting directly to me to ensure project alignment,” Kornbluth clarified.

During her discussion on the initiative with Yet-Ming Chiang, the focus was on funding projects with potential to significantly reduce emissions and enhance global sustainability.

“Projects should be high-risk, high-impact endeavors with potential to chart sustainable pathways. Time, not resources, should be their primary constraint,” emphasized Chiang on the project’s criteria for funding.

Kornbluth’s vision for the climate project resonated with the conference’s “short and long” theme, emphasizing a need to balance research with commercialization.

“Maintaining a flexible perspective that accommodates long-term goals while advancing rapidly on short-term objectives is crucial,” Kornbluth remarked. “Universities play a pivotal role in envisioning developments decades ahead, aligning incentives across the innovation spectrum while streamlining shorter-term objectives.”

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