At MIT Energy Conference, experts zero in on legacy energy systems

Global power generation from renewables like solar and wind continues to rise, and innovation in fields like clean hydrogen production and nuclear fusion is thriving. But translating all that progress into lower global emissions will require major changes to legacy energy systems around the world. That was the most discussed challenge among speakers at this year’s MIT Energy Conference, hosted virtually last week by the MIT Energy Club.

In some cases, energy systems can be adapted to integrate new power sources. In others, entirely new systems will have to be constructed to get power to people when they need it.

“There’s an equilibrium between technology, policy, and infrastructure, and they all depend on each other,” explained panelist Vijay Swarup, the vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil.

Many presenters began by acknowledging the huge strides solar and wind energy have made in terms of price and deployments over the last decade. In the event’s first keynote, George Bilicic of the global financial services firm Lazard presented his firm’s analysis on the cost of various energy sources, showing large-scale deployments of renewables are cost competitive with coal and gas in many circumstances.

But incorporating variable energy sources like solar and wind into the grid can be difficult, both economically and technically. New systems are needed to better integrate such energy sources into existing infrastructure, speakers said.

“I see digital services as a critical enabler of [clean energy] technologies, because there’s a lot more real-time management required when you’re dealing with a proliferation of energy solutions,” said Shell Energy Americas Senior Vice President Carolyn Comer, adding that Shell is developing new businesses models to harness more wind and solar energy. “The ability to switch [energy streams] on and off in a way that keeps the grid stable is critically important.”

Grid stability was top of mind for many participants in the wake of the February storms in Texas, which resulted in an energy crisis that left 4.5 million homes and businesses without power. Although the causes of the system failures are still being investigated, multiple speakers voiced frustration that renewables were quickly blamed for a disaster in which energy from natural gas was also disrupted and the grid experienced broad failures.

Speaking from San Antonio, Anthony Dorazio of Avangrid Renewables noted that in a future where extreme weather events are more common, grid resiliency needs to be a top priority.

“It’s not how we design a perfect system, because we’ll never design a perfect system,” Dorazio said. “It’s how we react to the changing environment. We need to look at digitization, we need information to move much quicker, we need to use forecasting tools to manage these changes as they approach. When you look at what happened in Texas, in the end we’ll all learn from it. We’ll be better and stronger, and figure out better systems as a result.”

The March 10-12 event, which featured talks by energy industry executives, startup founders, investors, and current and former government officials, is the largest, student-run clean energy conference in the world, according to conference co-organizer Trevor Thompson, an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

The 16th annual conference was also the first to include a panel on climate justice, where attendees heard from members of communities that have been disproportionately affected by fossil fuel emissions and pollution.

As part of that panel, Jacqueline Patterson, the senior director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, talked about observing higher rates of asthma among children in her hometown neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago.

“We have a broken energy system because instead of having a core purpose of providing energy and access to all, it has as a core purpose of providing wealth and power to a small few,” Patterson said.

The panelists stressed the importance of an inclusive approach to crafting climate solutions that includes low-income, minority communities, which have historically been left out of discussions on energy.

“Climate change is an all-hands-on-deck problem. Every one of us has to be part of the solution,” said Steph Speirs, founder and CEO of Solstice, a startup that works with low-income communities to build community solar projects.

Speakers at the conference also discussed a number of policy proposals, including carbon taxes and clean energy subsidies.

In a second keynote address, former U.S. secretary of energy Ernest Moniz discussed what he sees as key energy priorities for the administration of President Joe Biden, including the increased electrification of sectors like transportation and materials production, and the decarbonization of the U.S. electricity sector by 2035.

Moniz, who is the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems emeritus and special advisor to MIT President L. Rafael Reif, also cited areas like innovation and infrastructure where he sees bipartisan support for changes that could help lower greenhouse gas emissions. On the technology front, Moniz said so-called negative carbon solutions like carbon dioxide removal may be needed to help the world get to carbon neutrality in the near term. But, he added, “We’d better innovate like hell if we’re going to have something like carbon dioxide removal available in any appreciable way.”

In an interactive session, Jason Jay, a senior lecturer at MIT and the director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, gave a demonstration of the En-ROADS Climate Solutions Simulator, a model that lets users explore the impact of different climate policies on global temperatures.

Jay entered an ambitious scenario into the simulator in which all developed countries dramatically reduce emissions beginning this year, and showed that global temperatures would still warm above 3 degrees Celsius by 2100 — a level scientists have warned would lead to catastrophic climate changes — demonstrating the importance of getting participation from China and other developing countries.

“If we want solutions to the climate crisis, they have to be global solutions,” Jay said.

A total of 15 student-led teams also pitched their startup ideas as part of the ClimateTech and Energy Prize, which concluded the conference. Finalist innovations included a biodegradable, mushroom-based packaging material, a water-treatment solution that uses no electricity or moving parts, and a company attempting to decarbonize hydrogen production.

The winning team, Osmoses, is developing membrane technologies to improve chemical separation processes. The students said their solution could dramatically reduce industrial energy consumption.

The pitch competition was a fitting end to a conference in which many speakers expressed optimism about the prospects of scaling innovations to avert the worst-case scenarios of global warming projected by experts.

Still, many speakers said, it will take a lot of work and a renewed sense of urgency from the world’s leaders.

“We can’t just wait until 2040 to meet the 2050 targets,” said Judy Chang, the Massachusetts undersecretary of energy. “Because 2050 sounds so far away, we might think can wait for the next generation, but we really only have several opportunities to take things on, and action is necessary in this decade.”

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