Where Einstein Meets Edison

An Energetic Weekend at the MIT Energy Conference

An Energetic Weekend at the MIT Energy Conference

May 16, 2010

Opportunities, Pathways and Solutions.

The MIT Energy Conference is an annual student-run event that brings together leaders in the fields of technology, policy, industry, and finance and covers many important issues in energy applications. As a co-leader for the Commercializing Solar workshop, I attended the fifth MIT Energy Conference, which was held in Cambridge this past March. Much as the theme of the meeting “Opportunities, Pathways, and Solutions” had indicated, discussions were generated focusing on new opportunities in the post-depression economy, pathways to tackle new challenges, and showcases of promising solutions to the world’s energy needs. This year, clean energy was bullish.

During the Friday workshop series, two clean energy solutions were presented as topics for discussion among industrial experts, policymakers, and academic leaders in the fields of electric vehicles and solar power.

Concerns over air pollution, climate change, and energy security have been driving forces behind the development of electric vehicles. There are three different types of electric vehicles (EVs): plug-in hybrid EVs, battery EVs, and charge-sustaining hybrids, which have an internal combustion engine and a battery with an electric motor that can operate on liquid fuel. On a well-to-wheels comparison basis1,2, the efficiency of energy transmission from a crude oil well to a battery charger via transmission cables through a power generation plant is about 30%, while, the conversion efficiency from the battery charger to the EV battery is 80%. Combining the two, this gives an overall well-to-wheel efficiency of 24%. On the other hand, for a conventional gasoline vehicle, the process efficiency from the crude well to gas pumps is much higher at 83%, but the combustion engine’s efficiency of 20% leads to an overall efficiency of 16%. Thus, EVs still have a competitive edge over conventional gasoline vehicles in terms of crude usage efficiency. From an EV market perspective, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) share vehicle energy requirements between liquid fuel and electricity but require additional manufacturing costs, added weight, and frequent recharging. Battery electric vehicles (BEV) are perceived as a niche market with more potential1. Charge range limitation is a major issue for expansion into a larger market, as half of new car buyers have recharge access at home but not elsewhere, which can increase peak hour electricity demand. In urban areas, where short, low-speed commutes are possible and air quality is of greater concern, PHEVs and BEVs are more viable options. The California Air Resources Board is a fervent supporter of electric drive vehicles, and they have announced their intention to require 80% of new vehicles to be PHEVs, EVs, or fuel cell vehicles by 20353.

Solar technology is much more mature, is capable of large-scale commercialization, and is supported by favorable government policies and regulations. The three major categories that constitute solar technology are photovoltaic (PV), solar thermal, and concentrated solar power (CSP). In the US, projected solar energy growth is expected to draw 10% of electricity from PV, 3% from solar thermal, and 2% from CSP by 20205. Currently, the US has a total installed solar capacity of 1,500 MW in PV, 1 million square meters in solar thermal (~184 MW) and 424 MW in CSP 4. The cumulative capacity goal for 2020 is set at 350,000 MW for PV, 70 million square meters for solar thermal, and 50,000 MW for CSP. At the Commercializing Solar workshop, Solar World (a leading producer and supplier of solar energy technology in the US) shared information about their current position as a global leader in solar energy and its influence on the market. The company advocates participation in the energy industry through established commercial channels, rather than going through aggregators. Solar World is a firm believer that PV technology is well poised for distributed generation, where electricity is generated at the point of use. SolAs one of the largest solar energy businesses in the world, they currently have a 500 MW capacity in the U.S. They have ventured overseas in world-wide solar technology deployment, installing 3 GW per year in Germany, 300 MW and 3.5 GW in Spain over the course of two years, and 106 MW in Ontario5.

The state of New Jersey has been exemplary in promoting solar power. According to Commissioner Jeanne M. Fox from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, their solar renewable energy certificate program (SREC) has been around since 2004. In 2009, the Board of Public Utilities required that the electric utilities develop long-term contracts for SREC purchase. To date, 5,139 solar projects have been installed in the state — compared to just six installations eight years ago — delivering a total of 133.2 MW of installed capacity 6.

The breadth of green energy innovation on display this year at the conference went beyond convention. The Friday showcase was a business casual setting sparked by live music, cocktails, and hors d’oeuvres. Scientists from top-notch clean tech universities, entrepreneurs from energy startups, and other energy-conscious professionals interacted with students and other local professionals who presented posters of their research and hardware prototypes. The research interests were diverse: from the world’s first Formula 3 racing car designed and constructed from recycled materials and biopolymers derived from carrots and potatoes to genetically-engineered “suicidal” plants that can produce their own cellulose-degrading enzymes within the cell walls. In the biomass sector, for instance, different technologies compete and complement each other. Agrivida, an MIT-alumni startup, showcased its key technology: energy crop varieties that can produce cellulosic enzymes in the plant cell wall. After harvesting, the enzymes are activated on demand to degrade cellulose into sugars for downstream production, at costs comparable to $50/bbl petroleum. Mascoma’s whole plant bioprocess use a similar technology but an alternative concept. This biofuel startup focuses on a Consolidated Bioprocessing (CBP) method to convert non-food biomass feedstock into cellulosic ethanol. The patented CBP organisms rapidly break down the components of cellulosic biomass and convert a range of sugars and polymers of sugars into ethanol. Since 2006, the US Department of Energy roadmap for cellulosic ethanol has cited CBP as the ultimate low-cost configuration for cellulose hydrolysis and fermentation.

In looking forward towards paths for clean tech development, Susan Hockfield, President of MIT, said in her keynote speech that three pillars would support clean technology leadership in the future: research and development, domestic manufacturing capacity, and growing market development. While competition from China and Europe creates challenges for US energy companies, this form of competition creates a forum for a global exchange of ideas. According to Howard Berker, senior advisor of Good Energies (a global private investment firm in solar photovoltaic companies and wind developers), energy is a multi-dimensional problem. Many opportunities, pathways, and solutions can all lead to and converge on the unifying theme of a future fueled by sustainable energy.  The two-day meeting ended with applauding success, and the enthusiasm and collaboration generated amongst conference participants extended beyond the boardroom of the Sheraton Hotel. With any hope, the ideas that emerged from Powerpoint presentations will one day lead to the construction of a power plant.


  1. Workshop on Electric Vehicles 2010 MIT Energy Conference, John B. Heywood presentation slides
  2. www.nesea.org
  3. Workshop on Electric Vehicles 2010 MIT Energy Conference, John German presentation slides
  4. Workshop on Commercializing Solar 2010 MIT Energy Conference, Kevin Kilkelly presentation slides
  5. SEIA-Seizing the Solar Solution, Dec 2009
  6. Workshop on Commercializing Solar 2010 MIT Energy Conference, Jeanne M. Fox presentation slides