Keynote Address to the Massachusetts Energy Summit

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Energy Challenge
Welcome to MIT, and to this first-ever Massachusetts Energy Summit. MIT is delighted to partner with Ranch Kimball and the Commonwealth’s Department of Economic Development, to host this historic event. I am particularly delighted that Governor-Elect Deval L. Patrick will be joining us later in the morning. And I am also pleased to welcome, from the City of Cambridge, City Councilor Henrietta Davis and, from the Massachusetts Congressional delegation, Representative William D. Delahunt.

We are here this morning because we all recognize that we face a great national and world challenge: Finding clean, affordable energy to power up the developed and the developing world. At the same time, we are also here because this challenge offers our region, and particularly this Commonwealth, tremendous opportunities – opportunities to meet this challenge in ways that will also benefit the region. I would like to begin this morning's discussions by reminding you of the nature of the energy challenges, by suggesting where the most important opportunities lie, and by sketching out some ideas for how Massachusetts can move forward to take advantage of these opportunities.

Rising to the energy challenge will require our very best efforts because the challenge really is vast, and because our experience since the first oil shortage at the beginning of the 1970s shows just how easily complacency reasserts itself once an immediate crisis is past. But we simply cannot be complacent anymore.

Consider the stressors to our current system of energy supply and demand. First, world energy demand is on track to double by 2050, driven in part by the enormous appetite of the world's emerging economies. China alone has been increasing its energy use by about 10 percent a year, with profound impacts on energy markets. Competition for scarce energy resources is increasingly global, and we Americans can no longer assume the ready availability of cheap fossil fuels far into the future.

Second, as if mounting demand was not daunting enough, our current patterns of energy supply and use have troubling implications for our national security. We all understand the risks that accompany too great a dependence on foreign energy from politically unstable parts of the world. The extended energy delivery systems on which we depend are also vulnerable to disruption, from sabotage or natural disasters. We must remember that major wars have been fought over access to scarce resources, and our continued dependence on oil for transportation presages future conflicts over energy supplies.

And, third, as we are beginning to recognize, global climate change is upon us. We are likely only decades away, at best, from the point of no return on greenhouse gas concentrations. This, too, is an energy problem.

Bringing new energy options to market successfully will be a daunting economic challenge. You will recall that the world-changing innovations in information technology and biotechnology colonized open territory that was free of entrenched competitors. While energy requires similarly dramatic innovations, in sharp contrast to IT and biotech, energy innovations will be deployed into already-occupied territory – territory occupied by highly competitive, cost-efficient technologies, and vast infrastructures that support them. In most domains, mounting the infrastructure to support new energy sources will require enormous capital expense. These massive transitions will not occur overnight. They will take time. And they will require national and local strategies and policies to translate new energy technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Innovation is our best hope for addressing the energy challenges, but we should not delude ourselves into believing we can find a single silver bullet. We must explore multiple approaches. Energy solutions must come from a portfolio of technologies, not one "winner takes all" approach. Some need to play out over a few years, and others over a few decades.

Fortunately, the energy issue is once again high on the agenda, both for the public and for our political leaders. We have begun to understand that the convergence of high fuel prices, rapidly increasing energy consumption in emerging economies, geopolitical instability and mounting environmental concerns creates a near-Perfect Storm for energy.

New Opportunities
But this storm also creates new opportunities to solve growing environmental concerns, to supply our own nation's energy needs in a manner congruent with national security, and to meet the growing energy needs in the developing world.

Our current challenges have helped to create a shift in public and corporate attitudes. There is growing interest in the deployment of energy-efficient technologies, and, according to polls conducted by Professor Stephen Ansolabehere of MIT's Department of Political Science, Americans now say climate change is our single most pressing environmental problem – up from sixth place just three years ago.

Just as important as changes in opinion are the opportunities that science and technology now offer to forge new solutions to longstanding energy challenges. Innovative university research over the past decade, in fields such as nanotechnology and bioengineering, is starting to pay off in new energy technologies.

I'll just mention three areas where current research is particularly compelling. First, nanotechnology is spurring the biggest changes in batteries in the two centuries since Volta developed the first wet-cell batteries. Here at MIT, Professor Angela Belcher has already produced the first nanoelectrodes and batteries to be grown and self-assembled by viruses.

The possibilities are similarly exciting in fuel cells. With new technologies, these energy-saving devices may finally be able to compete with batteries on cost and durability. Professor Yang Shao-Horn is researching how to make the catalysts in fuel cells work longer. And Professor PaulaT. Hammond has developed new membranes that will allow fuel cells to operate under a much wider range of atmospheric conditions.

Finally, consider the promise of new biofuels to meet part of our need for liquid fuels. Just last week, MIT Professors Gregory Stephanopoulos, GeraldR. Fink and their colleagues announced a successful new approach to modify yeast to produce ethanol more quickly and efficiently.

Advances such as these are taking shape in an intensely cross-disciplinary environment, in which science, technology, and design come together. Today's cars, for example, are still much like Henry Ford's Model T. Tomorrow's will be very different, transformed by advances in hybrid technologies, batteries, and fuel cells. It will also be possible to integrate several novel technologies into complex, energy-efficient systems. Imagine a car of the future with a plug-in battery that could be used to drive around town. That battery could be storing energy produced from braking; when the battery starts to run low, a clean diesel turbocharged engine could kick-in; at night the stored battery energy could go back into the grid, or distributed for home power use. And when that car engine really needs to perform – say, exiting from a Mass Pike tollbooth – it could use a small device to inject ethanol-produced hydrogen into the fuel mix to multiply fuel economy and improve engine performance. Or, as the work of MIT Professor Gerbrand Ceder suggests, the electricity from novel battery chemistry could provide acceleration surpassing the most powerful gasoline engines – without a back-roar of exhaust.

We see the same promise of change in the design and construction of our homes and offices, in an industry that has traditionally been hesitant to adopt new technologies. New approaches to the integrated design and operation of buildings and their systems, many of them using technologies that are already available, offer the promise of tremendous energy savings.

I have already mentioned a few of the innovations coming out of labs here at MIT. The ambitious Institute-wide Energy Initiative we have recently launched reflects our commitment to answering today's energy challenge – and seizing its opportunities. This initiative brings together our very best researchers, our best ideas, and, probably most important of all, brilliant students with an unrelenting drive to change the energy world.

The MIT Energy Initiative is not just about engineering and the sciences. It also draws powerfully on economics, political science, management, and architecture and urban planning. Such an interdisciplinary approach is essential, because changing our energy infrastructure poses a huge systems-level problem. We are focusing our efforts around three organizing themes:

  • New technologies for a cleaner future, including solar power, energy storage solutions, and biofuels.
  • Improving today’s energy systems for progress in the near term, including clean coal, CO2 sequestration, and nuclear power.
  • Challenges posed by the developing world, where we believe we can make particularly important contributions in transportation and construction technologies.

The most important idea behind our Energy Initiative is that we must develop a portfolio of technologies to meet our era's energy needs.

Seizing the Opportunities for Massachusetts and New England
New technologies such as the ones we are developing at MIT will help answer our era's great energy challenge and its related climate challenge. They will also be engines of economic growth for the businesses and regions that produce them.

The question we are here to start answering this morning is: Will Massachusetts seize these opportunities? Too often in recent years, Massachusetts has succeeded at the R&D but lost the follow-on jobs. We need a strategy to make sure that locally developed technologies can also be "Made in Massachusetts."

Our experience with the biotech revolution offers us good reason to be optimistic. Within a few blocks of us are about 145life science businesses – in pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and biotechnology, from startups to established leaders. Their presence, here in East Cambridge, reflects the catalytic impact of MIT and other research universities, and of the world's greatest concentration of medical talent.

I believe that Massachusetts can play an equally important role in our generation's energy revolution. And, as I hope the example of the MIT Energy Initiative makes clear, those of us in the academic community are eager to do our part.

Now, other regions of the country and the world are looking at the same picture we see today – and they, too, want to become energy innovation hubs. For Massachusetts and New England to compete successfully, ideas and technology alone will not be enough. To get the magic mix that will fuel the economy we need a few more things:

  • Collaboration has been the hallmark of our era’s multi-disciplinary research advances. It will also be the key to turning energy research advances into products and companies.
  • We need to join the forces of our universities and the private so that we can make a much smoother handoff from research to development.
  • Within the private sector, we need established energy corporations and utilities to work alongside entrepreneurial tech-based firms.
  • We need a committed and engaged public sector to foster conditions that allow start-ups to mature into world-beating competitors. Here in the Boston area we have universities, capital, and entrepreneurial resources, but this area is also expensive and limited in space. We will need to work closely with other parts of our region that can offer innovators lower costs and more room to grow. We will need a regulatory environment that rewards innovation. And we will need to work together for national policies that promote the development and adoption of new energy technologies.


A Great and Inspiring Goal
Solving our energy challenges can become this generation's national goal, like the Apollo project's goal to reach the moon when I was growing up. The parallel between the race to the moon and the race to sustainable energy is not exact. Given the urgency of the situation, achieving a secure energy future will, indeed, call for a commitment in funding, policies, and passion comparable to the effort that led to the first lunar landing. The execution will certainly have to be different, because meeting tomorrow's energy needs is not a discrete undertaking with a single goal. It will require a broad portfolio of solutions, playing out on timetables measured over a few years to several decades.

Winning the race to the moon was a technological triumph, to be sure, but its benefits reached deep into the nation's psyche, inspiring a generation of children to believe that they could play a role in the nation's most exciting ambition and providing fuel for the nation's innovation economy.

The Apollo program demonstrated the tremendous power that is unleashed when science and technology, business, and the public sector work in tandem in pursuit of a great and inspiring goal. Today, our nation hungers for a similar inspiration, one that will fuel our innovation economy, and one that will draw our school children toward science, mathematics, and technology.

Providing clean, reliable energy supplies to meet the needs of the developed and developing worlds is just such a goal. And it is my hope that Massachusetts, and the New England region, will play a central role in meeting those needs in the decades ahead. In fact, our future economic success could depend on it.