Energy and Inspiration: Inventing the Future in Time

Thursday, February 14, 2008
AAAS Annual Conference, Boston, MA

When I first learned the theme for this year’s AAAS meeting, “Science and Technology in the Global Age,” within about a minute I thought of a dozen important dimensions I could explore. I could have chosen a David Letterman approach – the Top Ten Ways Science and Technology Will Transform Our World, starting with number 10, the new line of iPods: the Pico and the Femto. Instead, however, I am only going to talk about something that ranks close to Number One: a fascinating and ultimately world-shaping challenge that I glimpsed with extraordinary power during a trip to India a few months ago.

The issue I’ll speak to faces us in an increasingly pressing way: How do we, as a global community, meet the aspirations of people around the world for a healthy and productive life, in ways that will not irreparably damage the planet?

The question has two sides, of course. On one side, how do we in the developed world preserve the essential aspects of our quality of life, while navigating the massive shift to sustainable and renewable life styles? And on the other side, how do we together make it possible for the people of the developing world to acquire the basic comforts of modern life? How do we make it possible for others to enjoy the same gains that transformed America? How do we get electricity to the one billion people who don't have it? How do we work with leaders like Rwanda's President Paul Kagame to build a world in which everyone has, at a basic level, enough to eat, clean water to drink, and decent sanitation, and at a bit higher level, social mobility and access to the intellectual riches of the world? And how do we do all that, sustainably, at scale and in time?

Interestingly, these goals are interconnected; our success in achieving one can help achieve the others. For example, we have the opportunity to help improve living conditions around the world by sharing knowledge freely over the Web. As we all know, universities everywhere have started to share their educational resources openly online. India’s IIT’s have developed entire web-based curricula, for free distribution, to meet the pressing need to expand educational capacity. At MIT, we helped launch this movement, and we now provide open access to virtually all of the 1,800 courses in our curriculum through our OpenCourseWare initiative, or OCW. OCW now receives about 1.8 million visits each month.

We get emails constantly from students, educators and independent learners around the world, testifying to ways that OCW has enriched their teaching, or changed their lives. I want to quote one woman in Venezuela, who points to the power of open access to create change on a larger scale. She wrote to us:

“I want to say thanks for… opening a window of knowledge for so many…. who are limited by economic or other reasons. It's truly a way to spread freedom to humankind.”

I am convinced that the more we can all share our knowledge, exchange ideas and build on each others’ findings, the better we can grapple with the world’s great challenges, and the sooner we can invent our way to solutions. Those solutions involve a huge number of interlocking challenges. I expect many of you are working on pieces of this puzzle, as we are at MIT.

One piece that MIT is particularly focused on is energy. For this audience, I need not recite the now too-familiar litany of astronomically growing demand, insecurity of current energy sources, and the dire environmental consequences of current energy technologies. At MIT, we’ve committed ourselves to a major energy initiative because tackling today’s energy challenge presents both an opportunity, and a responsibility, of unprecedented scale.

As Americans, we live in the most energy-intensive society the world has ever seen. Yet we all know that the cost, in every dimension, is insupportable. Just to produce the electricity we need, the average American unwittingly consumes 20 pounds of coal a day. From the emerging economies comes an even more daunting challenge. While the U.S. burns 1 billion tons of coal a year, China already burns more than twice as much.

Given this as a baseline, where do we start? What is the path to a realistic global energy solution? A bright, clean, perpetually renewable energy future is a long, long way off, the far side of a chasm of unknowns. In effect, it will require a quantum leap, both intellectually, and in terms of applying a range of breakthrough technologies at scale.

The result is that we need to work on two tracks at once: We need to focus on transformational technologies, that will allow us one day to leap to the other side of that chasm, and at the same time, we need to work on a host of innovations that will dramatically improve today’s energy systems. These innovations are the technologies that will buy us time until we are ready for the leap. Incidentally, we also know that technology and invention alone won’t take us all the way to an answer: At least as hard a challenge, if not harder, will be developing sound policies and making them work politically.

At MIT, we’re working hard and creatively on both tracks, both on near-term innovations and long-term transformations, from sources including the sun, wind, waves, tides, geothermal energy, and biomass and biofuels. For those more distant transformational solutions, the centerpiece of MIT’s work will be solar.

Why solar? It’s a bit like that old line from Willy Sutton, when he was asked why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is!” The sun is where the energy is. The amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface in an hour contains enough energy to meet the world’s current energy needs for a year.

It’s commonplace to hear how unlikely it is that solar energy will become a major contributor. It’s important to take those voices seriously, but we have a significant number of faculty hard at work to prove them wrong, using the cutting-edge tools of nanotechnology, materials modeling and biotechnology to accelerate the competitiveness of solar. Enormous technical and policy challenges lie ahead, not least of which is the daunting problem of scale: delivering enough power to enough people in enough places to make a real difference. But we are working very hard to make solar a serious factor in the long term.

We are working just as hard to improve current technologies. Nuclear power, oil, gas and coal will all continue to contribute; we can’t live without them at the moment. MIT’s initiative includes developing cleaner and more efficient ways to use these “four fuels.”

At the same time, we need to elevate “efficiency” to the status of a “fifth fuel.” Especially in our buildings and vehicles, the potential gains from efficiency are tremendous. In the U.S., of all the energy we use, our buildings consume about 40 percent of it, and they use 70 percent of our electricity. As scientists and engineers, the waste in those systems should entice us to want to make it right.

All of these routes to a sustainable energy future remain beyond our grasp without intense, targeted investment and active partnerships among universities, industry, government and the public. If we could bring the critical forces to bear, however, I believe that a bright, clean energy future is within reach, in time.

Getting there will demand focused initiatives like MIT’s and the work going on at many of your institutions, along with very active and broad-reaching collaborations. Solving our global energy challenge will also require imaginative new partnerships with industry, and among the various players in the energy field who don’t typically play very well together: the enormous energy incumbents, and the alternative energy producers, the market transformers.

Finally, like the future of American discovery and innovation generally, finding serious new energy answers for the planet will require a renewed understanding in Washington that federal investments in research are essential, and that they deliver spectacular return-on-investment. Just as an example: over the past 30 years, NIH invested $4 per American per year on cardiac research. In the process, they cut death from strokes and heart attacks in half. One has to ask: just how much would it be worth investing, to invent our way to an energy future that we, and everyone on Earth, can live with?

In terms of the energy challenge, it’s easy to find the scale and complexity overwhelming. But as the technologically sophisticated, we, the members of the AAAS, have an obligation to tackle these challenges in a serious and sustained way. While we push forward on the technical questions, we also need to help our government leaders understand the issues, and help them develop far-sighted policies that go beyond short-term regional self-interest. We need to frame these problems for the public, so they have the power to make informed decisions.

And especially, we need to help young people see, in these great challenges, the kind of inspiration our generation experienced in the race to the moon; the kind of inspiration that made science and engineering exciting and important, and that made it matter that we did well in school, so that one day we could use those skills to make a difference; the kind of inspiration that made us believe that the sky was no longer the limit, the kind that will make young people today reach for the sun.

While we do our work, we need to make our voices heard, and I look forward to joining you in that effort.