Sunday, December 2, 2007

Thomas Friedman and the Energy Club on the Opportunities of "Green"

Friedman asks the Energy Club: What's it all About?
While meeting with a small group of MIT Energy Club representatives last week, Thomas Friedman, NY Times "Foreign Affairs" Columnist and author of "The World is Flat", was interested in what is truly at the core of the growing interest in energy, and asked: Green – “Is it all about energy?” And energy – “Is there anything deeper?”

Anup Bandivadekar, long-time Energy Club leader and Ph.D. candidate working on a hydrogen alternative to petroleum for transportation, quickly responded, articulating the underlying issues that motivate the activities carried out by the MIT Energy Club. Anup sited climate, economic growth, and development as issues that are deeply intertwined with energy, and stated that one can not separate any one of these issues from energy.

These sentiments resonated with Friedman, who sees “green” as a way to address all of these issues, and who also sees “green” and America as great opportunities for one another.

“Green: the new Red, White and Blue”
Friedman alluded to his upcoming book, and suggested that “Green” is taking on a new hue (or three). It is casting off debilitating labels that he described as “greenie-weenie”, is surpassing its most recent transformation as “the new black”, and is taking on the empowering and unifying shades of “red, white and blue.”

Surveying the new landscape of general acceptance of challenges including global warming, energy security, sustained economic growth, and global development; and equally surveying the strengths of the American economy including entrepreneurialism, innovation, and market mechanisms, Friedman sees the birth of an opportunity both for “green” and for “red, white, and blue”.

Who better to tackle the challenges that face our generation? What more worthy of causes than those that are encapsulated in the concept of “green”?

Leaders and Light Bulbs
“We are the people we have been waiting for,” proclaims MIT’s Vehicle Design Summit team. Friedman also met with the MIT students who launched the Vehicle Design Summit, and celebrated this empowered attitude in the recent edition of his column, "The People We Have Been Waiting For".

Before the end of our session with Friedman, however, he also made sure to impress upon us the importance of forward-thinking leadership. He suggested that the issue is so complex that strong leadership will be required to effectively tackle it, remarking that people can truly make an impact by changing their leaders, not their light bulbs.

I would argue that both are important. While innovative energy technologies will eventually emerge as the economic champions, the time scale on which they are deployed to a disruptive level may be too long relative to the time scale required to address the other issues at hand. Strong leadership and well-crafted policy will be required to reconcile the differences in time scales. On the other hand, proactive participation of individuals, communities, companies, and organizations will make and already are making a collective impact that can not be ignored, and should not be neglected.

At the Inaugural Energy Initiative Salon Reception this Tuesday, Dan Reicher, head of Google's Renewable Energy for less than Coal initiative will discuss the potential for businesses to provide leadership and make a big impact, while Ann Berwick, Undersecretary for Energy in Massachusetts will discuss the government role in supporting local production and providing energy infrastructure.

I concur that we are the people we have been waiting for, but can we do it alone? And, while "red, white, and blue" has the tools necessary to take on "green", does it have the vision and the leaders to recognize and shape its full opportunities and act on them?

Friday, November 23, 2007

MIT Energy Conference lands renowned clean energy investor John Doerr as keynote!

The directors of the MIT Energy Conference announced this week that John Doerr, Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers - one of the world's most famous and successful venture capital firms, has agreed to keynote this year's conference, to be held April 11-12, 2008. Congrats to the MIT Energy Conference Organizing Team on this huge win!

I couldn't be more excited about the Conference team's choice in having John Doerr as a keynote.

Doerr has emerged as a clean energy icon representing the new wave of capitalism-driven clean energy deployment that has taken the world by storm in the last few years. His impassioned plea for the need to deal with climate change at last year's TED conference in Monterey, CA (my home town) represented the mix of shrewd business acumen and emotional furvor that will be required to transform the global energy apparatus to a more sustainable one over the next 50-100 years to avoid political and/or environmental and/or economic catastrophe.

Kleiner Perkins has majorly committed to funding and supporting green technology development and currently has 10 publically-announced "clean energy" porfolio companies:

Local Firms in Their Portfolio:
- Great Point Energy - Coal-to-Gas
- Liluputian - Micro Fuel Cells (out of MIT)
- Mascoma - Cellulosic Ethanol (out of Dartmouth)

- Altarock: Geothermal (Seattle, WA)
- Altra Biofuels (Los Angeles) & Amyris Biotechnologies (Bay Area): Synthetic Biology for Biofuels
- Ausra: Solar Thermal (Bay Area)
- Bloom Energy: Regenerative Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (Bay Area)
- Miasole: CIGS Thin Film Solar (Bay Area)
- Verdiem: Software to Reduce "Vampire Loads" in PC usage (Seattle, WA)

Doerr will join Jim Rodgers, CEO of Duke Energy, to round out the MIT Energy Conference 2008 keynote line up. These two global clean energy leaders come from two opposite ends of the clean energy industry spectrum, with Rodgers being a progressive leader of one of the largest existing utilities in the U.S. and Doerr representing the nimble energy entrepreneurs and investors who hope to change the energy game. I believe they both will bring incredibly valuable perspectives to to the table: innovation and change will have to come from both the top-down and bottom-up in the energy industry to effect real progress toward reducing carbon emissions and environmental degradation associated with our energy usage.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

9 MIT Energy Profs Granted Tenure.... 18% of Total

MIT Tech Talk announced this week that the MIT Corporation has recently granted tenure to 50 MIT professors.

By my count 9 out of the 50 can be considered "energy professors". This provides one data point indicating that ~20% of MIT profs can be considered to be working actively in energy. Note: Bolded profs have been involved with the MIT Energy Club.

Full Tenured Professors:
  • Bill Green (Chemical Engineering) - leader in computer simulation of reactive chemical processes - active in understanding catalytic reactions for hydrocarbon refining/conversion/upgrading
  • Jonas Peters (Chemistry) - design of new inorganic and organic nonmetallic transformations and the synthesis of novel ligands and transition metal complexes with applications in solar and solar-to-fuels
  • John Brisson II (Mechanical Engineering) - work on carbon sequestration
  • Rajeev Ram (EECS) - work on thermophotovoltaics

Other Energy Professors Receiving Tenure:

  • Vladimir Bulovic (EECS) - leader in molecular, nanostructured, and organic semiconductor electronics and optoelectronics - active in organic and organic/nanocrystal hybrid solar
  • Nicola Marzari (Materials Science) - leader in first-principles calculations of materials properties - active in hydrogen storage, catalysis, and other energy areas
  • David Perreault (EECS) - leader in power electronics
  • Senthil Todadri (Physics) - works on theory of high-temperature superconductors
  • John Fernandez (Architecture) - leader in the field of sustainable and resource-efficient buildings

Nice diversity of expertise represented here. I'm curious if this ~20% number is accurate.....

Friday, November 9, 2007

Discussing Energy Infrastructure with MIT ESD PhD student Jim McFarland...

Jim McFarland (please note the glamour shot), MIT PhD student in ESD, lead a very interesting discussion on "Energy Infrastructure from the Vantage Point of Carbon Capture and Sequestration" this past Wed in the MIT Energy Club Discussion Series.

The discussion focused much more on energy infrastructure than CCS, but that was just fine. Jim started out the session by handing out copies of an incredibly thorough mind map categorizing the energy field. I highly encourage people to get copies of this. Hopefully, Jim won't charge. :)

The session began with a discussion about what we even mean by "energy infrastructure"? It was easy for us all to agree that transmission lines, distribution lines, and fuel pipelines clearly represent infrastructure, but through the discussion I believe most of us came to agree that energy infrastructure also includes power plants, gas stations, as well as the human and knowledge capital required to keep the industry going.

The discussion ranged about a bit, but here are a few other highlights....

David Danielson posed the question of whether energy infrastructure is truly underinvested in right now, as is widely claimed, or not. This led to the question of what it is that limits/determines the amount of investment that is made in infrastructure. Rich Sears, MIT visitng scientist from Shell, succinctly answered this question: profit-seeking companies determine their infrastructure investments by 1.) determining how much capital they have to invest and 2.) what are the most profitable ways to invest that capital. Pretty simple. :)

There was an interesting discussion on the difficulty of siting power lines/pipelines. The key difficulty is gaining rights to build/cross over privately owned land. Important solutions discussed included 1.) compensating private land owners for the right to cross their land (a la what we have seen with wind turbines - Rich Sears quoted a farmer he had seen interviewed who had a relatively loud wind turbine on his land saying "Sounds like money to me.".) and 2.) creating positive public perception of the benefits of the project to the general public in the region where transmission/pipeline rights are needed. One student from Kansas pointed out that the coal and natural gas lobbies have been fighting it out in the newspapers trying to change public opinion one way and the other in terms of siting new coal or gas power generation facilities. Although it sounded from what she said that these companies had unfortunately resorted to fear-mongering and xenophobia, students in the discussion realized that public relations campaigns are critical for any project requiring siting. Ideally, this is done in a more honest spirit, educating the public about the true benefits of the project.

The CCS portion of the discussion was very interesting. It was discussed that plenty of enhanced oil recovery projects have been done for many years by the big oil companies. BP's recent cancellation of the Carson City EOR project was highlighted as an example of the difficulties inherent in building new energy infrastructure. It was stated by one attendee that the project failed because of PR campaign in southern CA by some environmental groups telling the public that there was a danger that CO2 from the project could flood the entire LA basin, asphixiating the whole town. This is clearly silly, but it killed the project.

It was pointed out that CCS demo projects should be done with the explicity purpose of demonstrating the viability of CCS and that they should be performed in the locations with the most suitable geologies, not necessarily where existing energy infrastructure and human capital are concentrated. This would allow for demonstrations and careful measurement/validation while mitigating the risk of having a CCS project shut down by negative public opinion.

On a personal note, I have been thinking a lot about public perception about different sources of energy. It has become clear to me that the general public perception is that CCS is not green or clean, with perhaps a bit more of a yellowish hue. How can the CCS folks change this image? Perhaps by co-siting all CCS demo projects with wind and solar projects.... They better, if they want to have even the possibility of building out CCS at the scale that will be required to make a dent in CO2 emissions going forward in the next 5, 10, 15 years.....

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Former Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, Lee Raymond, speaks in the MIT Energy Initiative Colloqium

The MIT Energy Initiative brought Lee Raymond, former CEO/Chairman of ExxonMobil, to come speak to the MIT energy community about the recently published National Petroleum Council report "Facing the Hard Truths about Energy".

The format of the event was a "fireside chat" with MIT Institute Professor John Deutch peppering Lee Raymond with questions and then open audience Q&A.

John Deutch opened the session by expressing his pleasure that Lee Raymond has a PhD in Chemical Engineering. Very much in the spirit of Deutch's excellent MIT class, with Prof. Richard Lester, on "Applications of Technology in Energy and Environment". Deutch pushes in this class for the need for technologists to push their knowledge set into the practical to allow them to be industry, political, and thought leaders going forward.

Raymond opened by describing the history of the National Petroleum Council. The uninterested observer would just assume that it is an industry group like the American Petroleum Council. However, the audience learned a bit more.... the NPC was formed during WWII as an industry/gov't partnership to work to solve the strategic problem of ensuring U.S. oil supply. Now, the NPC is officially a federal advisory council that reports to the DOE, specifically to the Secretary of Energy, MIT's own Samuel Bodman currently. The NPC has previously published a report on Natural Gas. The current report was commissioned by the Secretary of Energy himself.

Raymond made opening points about the importance of large/long scales when thinking about solving energy problems. He pointed out that large scales are needed to "move the needle" in energy and that massive capital outlays over long time-scales are required to effect change in the energy industry.

Deutch's first question revolved around the prediction by the report that the world will produce and consume 120 million barrels per day (mbd) by 2030, the current number being ~80 mbd. Raymond responded that the resource is there and that the key question is whether we will be able to get at it: meaning will the required capital be made available, will policy and environmental limitations allow for it, and will the human capital be available to make it happen. He also pointed at that the wells currently accounting for the global production of 80 mbd are in production decline, so to get to 120 mbd by 2030 will required the addition of more like 60-70 mbd of new capacity, nearly equal to what we currently have! To me, doing what we have done so far in the history of oil once again, but in 23 years this time, seems daunting.

Another of Deutch's questions related to the important role that national oil companies (NOCs) in politically fragile countries play on the global oil scene. Raymond said that if the past predicts the future, he didn't have a lot of confidence that a lot of good things would be happening here. However, he pointed out, the fact that many of these countries rely nearly completely on oil income for their GDP would indicate that they will continue pumping, even through politically turbulent times (as long as this is possible!). Raymond emphasized the importance of the rule of law and transparency for allowing for a more efficient global oil industry to operate.

Raymond/Deutch also pointed out that ExxonMobil controlled ~80% of both production and reserves in 1973, whereas NOC's have about the same position now. An important trend to be aware of. Deutch wondered what the role of the multinational oil companies will be going forward with the NOC's playing such a prominent and growing role. Raymond stated that he believes that "best-in-class" multinationals will always have a place in the global oil industry, as NOC's have the need for capital, technology, and project management expertise that will reside in the multinationals for the foreseeable future. He also pointed out that the revenue difference for an oil field run "averagely" well versus the best run field means differences of $1B's per year, illustrating the core value of project management expertise.

Raymond was asked by Deutch to think like a startup guy for a moment and consider which technologies/problems in the energy arena are most exciting to him now. He pointed out subsurface characterization, "the ability to see into the earth", as one key area. He also pointed to the importance of flexible refining of crude oil: the ability to quickly characterize crude oil and optimally process it into refined products, as a very important area.

When asked by an audience member about the strategic importance of Antarctica for "Western friendly" oil resources, Raymond went straight to discussing deep water resources. He pointed out that we now can produce at 5000ft of water and explore at 10000ft. I believe he was trying to point out that deep water is one critical strategic reserve area for the West, as well as to emphasize the importance of technology development to open up West friendly reserves (opening up environmentally sensitive areas with delicate technology approaches?, increasing the resource base by being able to hit ultra-deep water?)

When asked about the importance of a variety of oil alternatives, Raymond pointed out the existence of a "false choice", meaning there is no either/or here but simply a need for as many market-viable solutions as possible. One very interesting point he made is that natural gas should not be used for power generation. It is just too valuable for the creation of high value energy products. He emphasized the logic of focusing much more on clean coal, making a low value product that is better suited to power generation an environmentally acceptable choice. Very interesting as the role of natural gas in the power section has grown like crazy in recent years.

He emphasized that one big surprise that came across to him as the NPC worked on the report was how difficult the infrastructure issues around biomass-energy are, that collection and transport of biomass and bio-energy products look very difficult from an infrastructure.

Raymond also emphasized the importance of energy in foreign policy. He noted that the U.S. is no longer the center of the energy universe, that the demand center of the universe has become the Far East, while the supply center is the Middle East (there was a time when the U.S. was the center of supply as well!)

Raymond has his hands tied a little when it comes to controversial topics, because he does not want to reflect poorly on the company he essentially built, ExxonMobil, with off-hand comments that get published far and wide in the media.

However, MIT's beloved John Deutch is another story (thank goodness!), and was not slow to mention the key geopolitical energy issues that are on everyone's minds, mentioning Iran, Venezuela, and Chinese dealings with certain African countries as key examples.

Raymond was asked - perhaps more told - by an audience member (an MIT alum and retired GE employee who had attended the Peak Oil Conference, referenced in Ed Carlevale's post below) that the age of cheap oil is over. Raymond had a nice quote in response, saying that "the age of cheap oil is over is a cheap comment". He pointed out that traditionally oil production costs have been in the single digits, while they are just now into the double digits. Even a doubling from current costs would put us in the $20's/barrel. My thoughts here: So is it fair to say that the era of cheap oil is over?? There is a limited resource availability, but that resource can still be produced at pretty low cost. So is there limited but relatively low production cost supply and increased demand results in high prices. We should remember that in contrast to the 1970's, the current spike in oil prices is much more a demand-side driven phenomenon than a supply-side issue.....

As a closing fun note, I was impressed to find out that Raymond completed his PhD in Chemical Engineering with a global chem eng rockstar prof in 3 years. Having taken 6.5 years myself, I am duly impressed.

All in all a very engaging and interesting discussion with one of the men who has formed the modern global energy landscape. I was impressed by Lee Raymond's cordiality and frankness.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Energy Night a Success!

Unprecedented numbers flocked to the MIT Museum on October 12 to find the most cutting-edge MIT energy research, the hottest MIT energy start-ups, and the most dynamic MIT labs. They were not dissapointed as Energy Night at the MIT Museum exploded in its 3rd year running.

Energy Night is the MIT Energy Club’s premiere community building event for the fall semester. It was a huge success for the club, with over 40 presenters exhibiting their research and MIT-based businesses to over 1200 attendees.

MIT Museum’s new exhibition space provided ample room for attendees and presenters to mingle. Appetizers and a jazz band set the scene for an exchange of energy ideas and information. Fergus Hurly, a Co-Director of Energy Night mentioned, “One of the unique aspects of Energy Night is its ability to get MIT researchers to discuss their most recent breakthroughs with the wider MIT community.” At left Chris Evans from the MIT Engineering Systems Division explains his research on the future of transportation fuel.

Presenters included the Laboratory for Plasma Fusion and Science, the Environmentally Benign Manufacturing Lab, and the MIT affiliated Draper Labs. General Motor’s new plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt (right photo), highlighted the night as attendees received an up close view of the sports car before entering the Museum. Surprise guest, Craig Cornelius, Solar Programs Director at the Department of Energy also stopped in to see what the buzz was about.

A major goal of the Energy Night event is to encourage the greater energy community to meet each other and discuss ideas for new research areas and business opportunities. Albert Park, and Arthur Mak, two MIT students interested in developing a new carbon conversion technology, came to Energy Night to find new teammates. Arthur mentioned, “We are eager to connect with like-minded individuals and to educate ourselves on the technology landscape. We are looking forward to meeting talented innovators who can help our company going forward.” Similarly, the demand management company, EnerNOC, pitched their business with attendees, but also emphasized job opportunities within their growing company. Seph Skerritt, a second-year student at the MIT Sloan School of Management was pleased with the networking opportunities available through Energy Night, noting “Everywhere I turned there was someone with an incredible technology. I was highly impressed with the event."

Summing up the event, Jason Roeder, a Sloan second year, noted, “Energy Night truly exhibits the passion and excitement regarding energy at MIT. It has grown to be the capstone of the MIT Energy Club’s fall events.” MIT Energy Night is already scheduled for October 10, 2008.

First-Year Sloan students Jenny Kwan and Burt Lafountain mingling at Energy Night

Friday, November 2, 2007

Energy Lecture Series: Mark McVay from PowerAdvocate - TONS of energy infrastructure investment on the way, SUPPLY CHAIN very difficult...

Mark McVay, Senior VP of Sales & Marketing at PowerAdvocate, delivered a very compelling lecture in the MIT Energy Lecture Series last night. The lecture was so interesting that the Q&A session started about 20 minutes in and never stopped until the final bell!

From what I gathered, PowerAdvocate is a consulting firm that helps big electric power firms with supply chain, procurement, pricing et al. They are MAJORLY in demand these days as everyone and their mom is looking to build capacity, and in many cases, capacity in technologies with which they have no prior experience (i.e. wind). The huge capacity buildup is resulting in major supply chain problems, with gas turbines, wind turbines, and other essential power plant components having lead times as long as 3 years.

A few random thoughts/notes that I took are here, would love to hear other people's thoughts about the points raised in this great lecture:

GREEN SUPPLY CHAIN: An interesting thing brought up was that some utilities are working to have a "green" supply chain. This presents a very complex task and was a great opportunity for a firm like PowerAdvocate to provide help. This will probably be a very interesting space for some company to fill on the consumer side, i.e. Walmart....

WE NEED NEW BLOOD: The average age of people working in the electric power industry is 55. There are going to be a ton of new opportunities for younger folks to get into this industry and rise fast. Such a large amount of turnover may have a profound effect on the philosophy of the industry....

NO WIND TURBINES AVAILABLE: Mark pointed out that wind turbine suppliers are unable to promise availability of turbines for sale until 2011, and even for 2011 delivery are unwilling to quote a price.

MASSIVE CAPEX ON THE WAY IN UTILITY INDUSTRY: Utility capital expenditures in the fourth quarter of 2006 was $60B. Jim McFarland pointed out that there was a big overbuild of capacity in the 1970's, which has led utilities to underinvest for a number of years. We are seeing a huge boom of new capacity being planned to make up for this. Capex is: 30% generation, 30% distribution, 11% transmission, ...

CHINA: Going out to 2030, it is projected that China will add 800+ GW of electric capacity, slightly higher than expected for North America.

EFFECTS OF THE BOOM: Costs and lead times for projects are skyrocketing due to the poor state of the supply chain after years without many new projects being built.... the specialty fans requred for SO2 scrubbers have a lead time of 2 years currently. Commodity prices have risen 35%/year as well in recent years. This means that change in the sector will only come slowly and that electricity prices will inevitably rise in the short to mid term.

Jim Rodgers, CEO of Duke Energy and a keynote speaker at this year's MIT Energy Conference, predicts that the electric power industry will need to invest $900B in the next 15 years.

But how will this much capital be attracted unless the returns on investment are sufficiently high. I think this points to an inevitable need for significant electric power price increases going forward, regardless of what PUC's might hope for. Otherwise, the investment just won't come.

If prices go up to much, I am concerned that popular support for climate legislation may die on the vine.

How do we avoid such a situation??

Demand management was proposed as a possible solution that could come on much more rapidly potentially...... Other ideas???

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Is he talking about us?

Jim Kunstler and his brilliant blog -- Clusterfuck Nation -- took us to Houston last week for the Peak Oil Conference, nastily summarizing expert testimony from the likes of Robert Hirsch, Matt Simmons and Jeffrey Brown, who collectively predict an energy future for us that lies somewhere between Mad Max I and II.

And Houston, apparently, was the ideal setting for the nightmare to come ("It is hard to imagine a more horrifying urban construct than this anti-city in the malarial swamps just off the Gulf of Mexico.")

This week Kunstler is back to say a word about those optimistic souls in universities who see an energy crisis and think techie opportunity ("Assumptions").

For the full blistering effect, it's worth quoting at length:

When historians glance back at 2007 through the haze of their coal-fired stoves, they will mark this year as the onset of the Long Emergency – or whatever they choose to call the unraveling of industrial economies and the complex systems that constituted them. And if they retain any sense of humor – which is very likely since, as wise Sam Beckett once averred, nothing is funnier than unhappiness – they will chuckle at the assumptions that drove the doings and mental operations of those in charge back then (i.e. now).

The price of oil is up 53 percent over a year ago, creeping up now toward the mid-$90-range. The news media is still AWOL on the subject. (The New York Times has nothing about it on today’s front page.) The dollar is losing a penny a week against the Euro. In essence, the American standard of living is dropping like a sash weight. So far, a stunned public is stumbling into impoverishment drunk on Britney Spears video clips. If they ever do sober up, and get to a “…hey, wait a minute…” moment when they recognize the gulf between reality and the story told by leaders in government, business, education, and the media, it is liable to be a very ugly moment in US history.

One of the stupidest assumptions made by the educated salient of adults these days is that we are guaranteed a smooth transition between the cancerous hypertrophy of our current economic environment and the harsher conditions that we are barreling toward. The university profs and the tech sector worker bees are still absolutely confident that some hypothetical “they” will “come up with” magical rescue remedies for running the Happy Motoring system without gasoline... As I said, these are the educated denizens of the colleges. Imagine what the nascar morons believe – that the ghost of Davey Crockett will leave a jug of liquefied “dark matter” under everyone’s Christmas tree this year or next, guaranteed to keep the engines ringing until Elvis ushers in the Rapture.

The educated folks – that is, the ones subject to the grandiose story-lines of techno-triumphalism taught in the universities – are sure that we’ll either invent or organize our way out of the current predicament. A society that put men on the moon in 1969, the story goes, will ramp up another “Apollo Project” to keep things going here. One wonders, of course, what they mean by keeping things going. Even if it were hypothetically possible to keep all the cars running forever, would it be good thing to make suburban-sprawl-building the basis of our economy – because that’s the direct consequence of perpetually cheap energy. Has anyone noticed that the housing bubble and subsequent implosion is following the peak oil line exactly?

And he's just warming up to the subject. Is he talking about us?

-- Ed Carlevale

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

MIT Solar Decathlon Team - Winning the Game Regardless of the Score

Last Friday, the results of the DOE's Solar Decathlon Competition, in which university teams build a portable energy self sufficient home and display it on the Washington Mall in DC for a week, were announced.

MIT, fielding its first Solar Decathlon Team, placed 13th in a field of 20, scoring 833 points relative to the 1025 racked up by the winner Technische Universistat Darmstadt, out of Germany. The MIT team made particularly strong showings in the judgement categories of "Energy Balance" (a metric for PV power generation) and "Getting Around" (the number of miles they drove their EV, powered by the PV panels on the house).

The press usually only recognizes MIT teams that officially win the competitions they enter, so I felt the need to put up this post.

I am damn proud of the MIT Solar Decathlon Team, regardless of the outcome. The team was created from nothing last year by force of will by Corey Fucetola and Kurt Keville. Quite unfortunately, the general MIT administration seemed unwilling to lift a finger or risk a cent for the team. However, from what I hear, MIT President Susan Hockfield and Beth Garvin, head of the MIT Alumni Association, stepped up at the last minute to provide as much support as they could for the Team. From what Corey says, the level of support provided to the Team from the MIT DC Alum Chapter was HUGE! And this came as a result of the support of Hockfield and Garvin.

I remember being present at the Muddy Charles Pub when the Team's founders were discussing whether they should go for it or not and a big concern was "what if we don't win"? In my opinion, this question keeps a lot of amazing MIT folks from realizing their full potential. IT'S OK TO LOSE. The world's best entrepreneurs, including those in the energy space, are some of the world's best losers as well! If we as an MIT Energy Community hope to have the world look back 30 years from now and say that MIT was the nexus of the modern energy revolution, (which is within our grasp) I think that we all need to learn how to leverage our amazing talents as far as possible by being willing to take a little more risk.

Here, here to the MIT Solar Decathlon Team. When the MIT Team finally does win the contest some time in the near future, we will have the entrepreneurial spirit of the 2007 Team to thank for it!

Who do you want to keynote the MIT Energy Conference?...

Hey folks,

Would love to have people share their view in comments here on who the MIT Energy Conference Directors should invite to keynote the conference. There will likely be three keynotes this year. Sound off!

Jim Rodgers, CEO of Duke Energy, is already set to speak. One down, two to go.

My favorites:

- Al Gore - I want to hear Al Gore's perspective on solutions the climate crisis. An Inconvenient truth did a great job convincing people that there is a problem, now let's hear his take on how to solve it.
- John Doerr - world renowned venture capitalist, John Doerr, has demonstrated a deep commitment to energy through Kleiner Perkin's major initiatives in energy investment and moved me with his emotional address at TED in Monterey. I would love to hear him speak.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

MIT Energy Initiative announces Ford as its first "Sustaining Member"...

The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) announced this week that it has signed its second large corporate supporter/sponsor, the Ford Motor Company.

Ford is the first company to sign on as a "Sustaining Member" of MITEI, committing $1M/year for 5 years to the Initiative. (As blogged here previously, BP has signed on as the first "Founding Member" of MITEI - indicating a commitment of $5M/year for 5 years).

For reference, the levels/details of MITEI sponsorship can be found here:

- Founding Members: $5M/year for 5 years
- Sustaining Members: $1M/year for 5 years
- Associate Members: $100K/year for 5 years
- Affiliate Members: $5K/year (no multi-year commitment)

Ford and MIT have long had a productive research collaboration through the Ford-MIT Alliance, a partnership that began 10 years ago in 1997. The Ford-MIT Alliance was renewed this summer for three more years (Jan 2008 - Dec 2010) to the tune of $5M/year. (The last renewal was for 5 years from 2003-2007 at a level of support of $4M/year)

Including both its support of the Ford-MIT Alliance and the MIT Energy Initiative, Ford's support of the MIT energy community will rise to the level of $6M/year for sure for each of the next three years (a 50% increase over the total support it gave MIT through the Ford-MIT Alliance in 2007).

MIT Energy Initiative Announces Call for Proposals for "Seed Fund Program" for MIT Research

The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) has announced a call for proposals for the MITEI Seed Fund Program, a research fund set aside by MITEI to provide seed financial support to early stage MIT energy research projects.

The "Seed Fund Program" will be accepting proposals biannually over the next five years (the initial time frame of MITEI).

Next Spring (application deadline this Fall), the Seed Fund Program will be funding 5 seed projects $100-$200K for 1-2 years and five (let's call them "zygote") projects (junior faculty only) at $40K that are expected to be finished by the end of the summer (10 months).

Application deadline is Nov 13.

To put this in context, a graduate student researcher costs ~$100K per year on average. (this is a rough number, some students who focus on literature analysis/computation can be as low as ~$50K/year, whereas some students doing equipment heavy experimental research can be as high as $150K/year)

Assuming the average distribution per call for proposals (twice a year for 5 years) is $150K/year for the "seed projects" and $40K/year for the "zygote projects", this comes out to a distribution of ~$1.9M/year (I don't know the exact details on whether most of the seed projects will be one year or two years so this is rough).

$1.9M/$100K = 19 full graduate students per year every year for the next 5 years. NOT TOO BAD.

I wish that an MIT MS student or UROP would take on the challenge of trying to quantify how many graduate students on campus are currently working on energy research and how much research money MIT is currently getting for energy research. Without such statistics, it is very difficult to 1.) put numbers such as those above in context (i.e is this a 5% bump or a 20% bump?) and 2.) how well are we doing going forward in getting more energy research funding through MITEI and MIT efforts to get more funding from existing sources?

Tiffany Groode, MIT Energy Club member and soon to be Mech Eng PhD alum, performed the definitive MIT Carbon Emissions Study for her master's thesis and this now appears to be THE de-facto official data for MIT, so this is definitely possible - an ideal project for a TPP or ESD'er....

If a go-getter MIT student interested in doing this, I'd be very happy to do anything I could to get them support.

- Dave Danielson, Founder/MIT Energy Club (dtdaniel(att)mit(dott)edu)

Energy Club Discussion Recap: A Battery Revolution?

Thanks to everyone who attended/participated in the recent Battery Discussion ('A Battery Revolution?', Oct 3, '07). There was a ton of participation for a diverse number of people with great backgrounds/perspectives.

I've been requested to follow up the discussion with this blog to encourage continued discussion on this topic. I'll first summarize some of what we talked about, then try to stimulate more discussion.

I've uploaded a slideshow and the handout I put together for the discussion:


-Batteries are appealing because they have a low enough cost, long lifespan, are very reliable, and have enough power-to-energy suitable for most portable applications. Batteries were really enabled by portable applications - otherwise, electronic devices can simply run off of grid power, or generator power.

-Fuel cells have higher energy/power density that batteries, but their round-trip efficiency is ~35%, compared to >90% for Li-ion batteries, and they are more expensive.

-Neither batteries nor fuel cells, in of themselves, are 'renewable energy sources', but rather, they could play a role in the energy infrastructure, enabling renewable energy sources (like wind, solar, hydro, nuclear (?)) to charge the batteries/create hydrogen, which in turn, could power our cars. This could break the CO2 cycle and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

-Flywheels and capacitors can supply a lot of power, but do not have good energy density (or cost per unit energy, $/kWh).

-There is a company in Texas (EESTOR) making some pretty revolutionary claims about new ultracapacitors with higher 'energy' density that lithium-ion batteries (not to mention, longer lifespan, lower cost, and high power density). I would be very excited if this becomes a reality, but I am skeptical until I see a working model.

-There was much discussion about the use of batteries in hybrid electric vehicles (HEV's) /plug-in (PHEV's). Batteries are certainly pushing towards these markets, but they have more challenges to overcome, including safety, cost, and energy density.

-Lastly, the talk shifted towards other applications, such as renewable energy (i.e. wind power) support. Such a storage device must cost ~$100/kWh, have moderate efficiency (>70%), and very long lifespan (>3000 deep cycles). It's a very tough market to enter, but if a battery can do it, it's a 'game changer'. Some utilities in the US are already installing sodium-sulfur (NAS) or flow batteries (Premium Power) for this (and other) grid power applications. The cost of the NAS battery alone is ~$170/kWh, vs. $100/kWh for lead-acid batteries (which don't have the cycle-life required for these applications), vs. $1000/kWh for Li-ion batteries.


There were a couple of areas that we touched upon but didn't have any good answers to. I'd like to finish this post by posing the following questions:

1) What makes up the cost of a battery? I've heard that ~30% is materials related - but what are the other cost components? (i.e. manufacturing, transportation, labor, disposal of toxic chemicals?)

2) Is there a "Moore's Law" equivalent for batteries? How has the cost/energy density/power density improved over time?


(Also note - this blog was also posted in the 'energy storage' section of this blog site - feel free to comment on whichever one gets more responses!)

Friday, September 28, 2007

MIT Energy Conference announces "Content Kick-off Event" and open call for panel ideas...

This week, the directors of the MIT Energy Conference 2008 opened the doors for the broader MIT community to participate in content formulation for this year's conference.

Those with ideas for panel topics and speakers should do the following;

1.) Next Mon, Oct 1 attend the first MIT Energy Conference organizer event, the "MIT Energy Conference Content Kick-Off Event" at 6:30PM in 322-155.

2.) Submit your one page panel idea abstract to content co-director Daniel Enderton (MIT PhD Student, Climate Physics) - and Andy Peterson (MIT PhD Student, Chemical Engineering) - by Fri Oct 19.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

BP supports MIT Energy in a big way....

MIT announced today that BP has become the inaugural "Founding Member" of the MIT Energy Initiative, funding the Initiative to the tune of $5M per year for 5 years.
(As noted below, BP has been and continues to be a huge supporter of the MIT Energy Club and Conference as well).

The MITEI/BP collaboration includes support of MITEI itself as well as the establishment of a new MIT research program entitled the "BP-MIT Advanced Conversion Research Project". This program will focus on the conversion of low-value feedstock such as petcoke and coal to high-value products such as electric power, liquids fuels, and chemicals, while minimizing carbon dioxide emissions.

The core research thrusts of the Project are:
  • Simulation of feedstock conversion/decarbonisation processes
  • Multiscale simulation of gasification
  • Syngas cleanup and upgrade
  • Gasification technology development
  • New processes for converting syngas to liquid fuels
  • Process integration and design for operability
  • Fuels market/policy analysis

As a Founding Member of MITEI, BP will also:

1.) Financially support MITEI's Energy Research Seed Fund program, which will provide funding for novel MIT energy research, and;

2.) Fund 10 "BP-MIT Energy Fellows" each year of its 5-year commitment. For reference, a typical graduate student tuition and stipend cost is ~$50,000/year.

BP has also been an invaluable supporter of the MIT student energy community: BP was an MIT Energy Club sponsor last year and continues as a sponsor this year, and is a "Title Sponsor" (highest level of support) of the MIT Energy Conference this year as well.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Melanie Kenderdine Lecture: US Strategic Petroleum Reserve

On the evening of Tuesday, September 11, the Energy Club hosted a lecture by Melanie Kenderdine on the topic of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The lecture took a broad view of US petroleum security, but drew on a series of anecdotes from Ms. Kenderdine's years inside the DOE during the Clinton administration.

Interesting take-aways:

- The US Strategic Petroleum reserve has a capacity upwards of 700 million barrels -- for reference, that's enough petroleum to feed the world's entire demand for a little less than 10 days, or to supplant US petroleum imports for about 2 months. However, the rate at which petroleum can be pulled out of the SPR is just upwards of 4 million barrels per day. Legislation is in the works to expand SPR capacity to 1 billion barrels.

- The crude oil stored in the SPR can be tapped for a number of reasons -- to compensate for small supply disruptions (as "loans" to oil and petrochemical companies, with additional oil paid back as interest), for test sales (5 million barrels or fewer), and larger drawdowns (which can occur only with presidential authorization). Because of the requirement for executive authorization of large drawdowns, the SPR has become a strong political lever (particularly in the past decade). Apparently, there is a tendency in Washington to disregard DOE recommendations about SPR drawdowns until they become politically expedient.

- At one point during the Winter 2000 heating oil shortage, heating oil supplies had dropped as low as seven days' worth of heating oil. With a delay of 10 days in perceptible market responses, the US was at a very real risk of running out of heating oil. The only factor that prevented a heating oil runout was that the weather warmed up. Since then, the US has more fully developed a dedicated system of heating oil storage for the Northeast (the predominant region for heating oil use).

Also, see more info on the SPR from the DOE's official site.

Lecture slides will be posted soon!


Thursday, September 13, 2007

MIT Energy Conference 2008 dates set for April 11-12, 2008 at the Kendall Marriott

Over the summer, the MIT Energy Conference 2008 directors were huddled away at MIT's Muddy Charles Pub laying the foundation for this year's conference.

(MIT World just put up Jeff Immelt's keynote address from last conference here.)

The conference date has been set for April 11-12, 2008 at the MIT/Kendall Marriott Hotel. An open-to-the-public New England Energy Showcase event will be held the evening of Friday,, April 11, while the conference itself will be all day Sat, April 12.

This year's directors are:

  • James Schwartz (Managing Director): James is the current co-president of the MIT Energy Club and was a conference director last year. He is a 2nd year Sloan MBA student student with a background in wind power and a strong interest in energy project development and entrepreneurship.
  • Daniel Enderton (Content Co-Director): Daniel is currently the co-president of the MIT Energy Club and was a content co-director last year as well. Daniel is a PhD Climate Physics student and has a strong interest in a career in the utility sector working to decarbonize the grid.
  • Andy Peterson (Content Co-Director): Andy is a content co-director of this year's conference. Andy is a PhD student in Chemical Engineering working on biofuels conversion methods. He is the co-founder of C3 Biofuels, a renewable biomass-to-propane conversion company.
  • Jason Roeder (Marketing Director): Jason Roeder is the marketing director for this year's conference. Jason is currently the MIT Energy Club Treasurer and is a 2nd year Sloan MBA student. Jason has a deep policy background, having previously worked on energy/environmental policy in Mitt Romney's MA gubernatorial administration.
  • Justin Ashton (Logistics Director): Justin will be ably filling the shoes of former rockstar logistics director Alissa Jones, who has moved onto greener pastures at McKinsey. Justin is a 2nd year sloan student and also serves as the MIT Energy Club's Industry Relations Chair.
  • Steve Carpenter (Showcase Director): Steve will be heading up the organization of the Friday night "MIT-New England Energy Showcase" for the 2nd time this year. Steve is a 2nd year Sloan MBA student.

The content directors will have an open call for panel ideas and conference organizers in the near future, so keep your eyes peeled here for announcements!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The MacKenzie Delta Lecture

Brendan Bell, who is the Northwest Territories Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment, is touring the US with the aim of drumming up support for a 16 billion dollar pipeline project from the Mackenzie Delta (on the shore of the Arctic Ocean in the Northwest Territories, Canada) to the Alberta extra-capacity lines and thus to Southern markets (the good ole' USA). His opening lecture focussed on the Energy and Environmental Analysis Inc. (EEA) Gas Market Models which attempted to quantify the costs for US consumers of not going ahead with the project. The number they came up with was $340 billion from the period 2014-2025.

After the lecture, Daniel Enderton prodded the speaker to discuss in more depth the political dynamic involved given the seemingly competing Alaskan pipeline project. From this point, the Minister started to discuss very interesting matters from the politics of protectionism, the issues which are presently most important for the project (financial commitments from the IOCs, in particular Exxon) and why the project is so important for the Northwest Territories (high unemployment, little development, etc). The minister also emphasized how infrastructure (or lack of it) can swell the costs very significantly for such projects.

How Energy Clubbers spent their energy summer....

A number of MIT Energy Club members spent their summers doing interesting work in the energy industry. Since the poor PhD students continued to work in the lab all summer, most of the interesting stories come from the Sloan side! :)



Scott Roberts
, 2nd year MBA student and active Club member, worked this summer at Burlington, MA-based international independent power provider Intergen, a company with 9 power plants and over 5GW of power plant equity. Scott worked in their corporate finance group on quantifying the financial impact of several macro risks on their power plant portfolio. He helped design and build a risk analysis tool using power plant financial models and Monte Carlo simulation..... Justin Ashton, Energy Club Industry Relations Chair, and Matt Albrecht, Energy Club EnergyNight Co-Chair (both 2nd year Sloan MBA students) took Boston's Citizens Energy by storm this summer, working alongside everyone's favorite MIT Energy alum and Citizens' Director of Alternative Energy, Tod Hynes...... James Schwartz, MIT Energy Club Co-President and Managing Director of this year's MIT Energy Conference, spent the summer in CT working at GE Energy Financial Services on energy project development alongside prominent MIT TPP alum Steve Taub.... Jason Roeder, 2nd year MBA student, MIT Energy Club Treasurer, and MIT Energy Conference Co-Director this year, spent the summer at recently public Boston-based EnerNOC (joining fellow alumni MIT energy club members Tom Atkinson and Shaheer Hussam). Jason was definitely impressed by his experience at EnerNOC.

From Jason's mouth:
"The demand response product that EnerNOC has pioneered is quite nuanced in its relation to electricity economics, regulatory regimes, and broader energy efficiency and smart grid applications. I was very impressed with the number of moving pieces in the organization - software engineering, field operations, network operations, power market analytics, sales force, etc. Based on my summer experience, it seems likely that demand response will have a permanent place in the utility/power market design quiver. The relatively small (~5%) reductions in demand that DR provides over the last ~1% of the load duration curve (87 out of 8760 hrs/yr) leads to big $$$ benefits for the market as a whole."


David Levy, 2nd year Sloan MBA student, spent the summer cutting his solar business teeth at thin film solar startup HelioVolt based in Texas..... Jacob Levy, a Sloan MBA student as well as David's twin brother (not really), spent the summer working at Evergreen Solar in Marlboro, MA, reporting to MIT energy alum (Sloan '76) Mark Farber, VP of Marketing & Business Development. Jacob also played a key role along with MIT Energy Conference co-founder and Evergreen employee Nol Browne this summer in bringing together various New England solar stakeholders (gov't, university, investment, etc) to work to expand solar activity in the region..... Viara Nedeva, 2nd Year MBA student, also had a solar summer, but on the other side of the world from David and Jacob, at BP Solar in Sydney, Australia. (Note: I am jealous of her, but not of David and Jacob) There she developed financial models to evaluate the economic feasibility of potential solar energy projects in East Asia.


Matt Zedler, recent Mech Eng BS alum and former Energy Club Tours Chair, diverted from his science and technology background this summer to work on policy with the majority side of the
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Washington, DC.

From Matt's mouth:
"During a three-month fellowship, I had the chance to see the legislative process up close and personal, as well as the opportunity to meet several prominent energy advisors and policy makers. The first week of the summer placement coincided with the bringing of the Energy Savings Act of 2007 to the Senate floor. The rest of the summer involved conferences between the House and Senate on the America COMPETES bill, focused on revitalizing America's science and engineering education given the "threat" of other nations' successes. Right before the August recess, President Bush signed the bill into law, causing a celebration among the committee staff. I also spent a large part of the summer researching models for funding large-scale energy research, writing a white paper comparing several different models. The experience was both rewarding and frustrating as much of the staff's time is spent putting out short-term fires and running from one briefing or hearing to another. Working on policy showed me how the legislative process requires inputs from people with technical background, and it also proved how slow the progress of legislation can be. While I will not be returning the Hill anytime soon, the experience was a valuable and instructive one for me."


James Schwartz, Daniel Enderton, Andy Peterson, Justin Ashton , Jason Roeder, and Steve Peterson (the Co-Directors of the 2008 MIT Energy Conference) spent the whole summer scheming about the conference at the Muddy Charles Pub.....

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

MIT Energy Club Kick-Off Draws 80!

Last Wednesday, the MIT Energy Club kicked off its Fall events season with a bang, hosting 80+ MIT energy folks ready and rearing to dive into energy. I've been around the MIT Energy scene for going on 5 years now and I saw a lot of fresh faces, which is great for MIT energy!

The event was a joint Discussion and Kick-Off Social at the R&D Pub in the Stata Center. The large number of attendees clearly indicated the continuing rise in interest in energy amongst students and faculty at MIT, considering that the same event last year drew only 40!

The Discussion was entitled "Energy 101: Energy Overview" and laid the foundation for the rest of the Club's more focused discussions, lectures, and other events. The discussion had a tripartite focus: Economics, Environment, and Security. It was emphasized that when thinking about energy, we need to think about outcomes along these three axes, as opposed to being wed to any particular technology/policy/deployment approach.
(References found here)
(Overview slides found here)

Club Co-President, MIT Climate Physics PhD student Daniel Enderton kicked off the discussion with an overview of some basic quantities that everyone in energy needs to know: total annual global primary energy usage (~400 Quads or EJ - quads and EJ are nearly equivalent), the U.S. energy rule (divide global by about 4, ~100 Quads), and the 85% rule - about 85% of global primary energy comes from fossil fuels. Daniel also discussed the recent rapid growth rates in renewables in recent years (20-40% depending on which) in biofuels, PV, and wind. Enderton laid out an Energy Club truism: since fossil is the dominant energy source and will be for the foreseeable future, if you care about energy outcomes you better understand and care about fossil fuels. However, the large growth rates in renewable energy make it a great place to focus one's efforts as well. You need to understand both to win the energy game!

His fellow Club Co-President, James Schwartz followed on by discussing energy costs, particularly in the electic power sector. This sparked some heated discussion on the true costs of wind power, with new Club member Mike Hogan and LFEE researcher Steve Connors hammering it out over the true added cost that should be assigned to wind power due to its intermittancy, hopefully a point to be discussed later this semester in a Wind Power discussion. The options available for grid scale storage were discussed in this context as well, including compressed air energy storage, pumped hydro, and large flow batteries (all hopefully topics worthy of discussion this year). By the way, Richard Lester and John Deutch's "Applications of Technology in Energy and Environment" MIT course is a great place to go to learn how to calculate energy costs.

Club Vice President Kristian Bodek headed up the piece on environment, with a focus on key criteria pollutants. Kristian pointed out that specific pollutants should be understood to be linked to specific negative environmental outcomes and specific energy sectors. For example, SOx = acid rain = utility sector (particularly coal) and NOx = smog = auto sector (esp personal transport). Kristian then identified the key contributors to greenhouse gas emissions globally: interestingly, the power, transport, and industrial sectors contribute about 50% of total emissions, with the rest rounded out by forest burning, ag byproducts, and fossil fuel recovery and processing mainly. He also pointed out that along with CO2 (72% of effective emissions), CH4 (18%) and nitrous oxide (9%) are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions - both dominated by agricultural byproducts.

Club Discussion Chair Justin Anderson closed the discussion with a brief overview of energy security. In the U.S. and many other regions, energy insecurity = oil import dependence. However, it was pointed out that natural gas is becoming a key energy insecurity issue, esp in the Russia-Europe strategic energy relationship, with a politically re-emerging Russia having shut off supply occasionally in recent years. Justin pointed out that the U.S. uses 19.2 million barrels of oil/day, 64% of which is imported. Interestingly, 10.3% of U.S. oil comes from Canada, the largest coming from any single country (Saudia Arabia is only at ~8%). The real concern was mentioned that reserves are concentrated in the Middle East in regions not particularly friendly to the U.S. and that the % of total reserves in this region will likely only grow as reserves are consumed elsewhere. Justin brought up one possible optimistic scenario that could get around this: if technological developments allowed North America to economically take advantage of its massive tar sands/oil shale reserves. After all, as Justin pointed out, reserves are a function of cost of extraction/processing to make crude.

The event concluded with a social hour at the MIT R&D Pub where 80+ members of the MIT energy community mingled and sparked new ideas. I overheard conversations about which MIT advisors to work for in batteries, I saw a new energy startup form, I overheard students getting advice for how to transition from a Physics PhD to a position in the energy industry.... Just the kind of stuff you hear at the MIT Energy Club's great events. :)

Looking forward to seeing everyone at upcoming Energy Club events!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Brazil makes oil too?

Lately, Brazil's energy-efficient and economical sugar cane ethanol industry has been receiving lots of attention in energy circles. But, Brazil has a fairly large and thriving petrochemical industry as well. Today's Wall Street Journal profiles the unusual success that Petrobras, Brazil's nationally owned oil company, has had in the last ten years. Highlights from the article:

"If only our friends in OPEC were more like Petrobras we'd all be a lot happier because there would be a lot more oil," says Leo Drollas, chief economist of the London-based Center for Global Energy Studies....

...[Ten years ago the Brazilian government] also abolished Petrobras's monopoly on drilling for oil in Brazilian territory....

...Unlike most state companies, which were either born with reserves or nationalized them, "our objective was to find reserves," says Mr. Gabrielli, the Petrobras president....
MIT users can get the article FREE via Factiva by starting from this link.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

From alphabet soup to focused energy hot pot

Over at xconomy, Wade Roush reports two interesting developments in Massachusetts' energy entrepreneurship space. First, the New England Energy Innovation Collaborative (past sponsor of the MIT Energy Conference!) may be merging with Governor Patrick's soon-to-be-publicized Massachusetts Clean Energy Council.

Second, and perhaps of more local interest, the NEEIC Business Creation Competition may merge with the Ignite Clean Energy Business Plan Competition.

I think both of these are (potential) positive developments, but as MIT Energy Club Entrepreneurship Chair, I am personally more interested in the potential merger of the business plan competitions.

If the merger between the business plan competitions does happen, it will be interesting to see the parameters of new event. Last year, I know from experience that the ICE competition put a lot of emphasis on polishing the business plan documents and powerpoint decks to make as persuasive a case as could be made for a given team and technology. Teams with polished pitches did well. The NEEIC competition, in contrast, seemed to judge entrants more on a holistic, "do I buy it or not" VC mentality which evaluated a technology's perceived chances in today's energy venture marketplace.

As the xconomy piece notes, differences in the prize structure would also need to be rectified in the event of a merger. The difference in judging criteria is likely related to the prize structure. NEEIC's use of a convertible note as a prize means that VCs wind up invested in the winning team. Naturally, a holistic, yet all-or-nothing VC mentality results in the judging process. This isn't a bad thing, of course, but is in contrast to the ICE competition. There, the motto is "learn, network, win", which to me suggests that one of the primary goals is simply educating the participants about the world of energy entrepreneurship here in Massachusetts.

One thing that I hope won't change is the success that MIT Energy Club members and MIT students in general have in these competitions! Just to name a few, Peter Bermel, who co-founded StarSolar and won the NEEIC competition, has lent his voice to past EC discussion groups. Dave Pelley, a member of the ICE-winning RSI Silicon team, is an MIT alum Energy Club member. Who from the MIT Energy Club will dominate the business plan competitions this year?

Coal on the brain

Lately I've been thinking a lot about coal. Coal mining is a dirty, dangerous job, as we are all occasionally reminded when tragedy strikes, as it did in Utah and China in the past weeks.

But these reports focus on the calamities and disasters, which are undoubtedly the most horrific risks that miners face. But I've always known that even the average, disaster-free workday is no walk in the park. Recently, I had the chance to visit the coal mine exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, an absolutely fantastic firsthand look into the day-to-day drudgery of life in the mines.

After seeing the exhibit, I viewed the Bush Administration's recent removal of regulatory obstacles to mountaintop mining in a different light. Mountaintop mining, where instead of digging underground tunnels into a mountain, the mountain is just exploded from the top down, may exact substantial environmental costs, for sure. But it seems to me that this practice offers miners a decreased risk of disaster and an improved general workplace welfare. that the risk of disaster as well as the health and welfare burdens that miners bear are much lower with mountaintop mining.

How do policy experts balance workplace safety with environmental concerns when deciding on how to regulate the coal mining industry? It's a tough job and I would love to hear from policy experts.

[Hat tip: Jonathan Adler for the link to the NYT article.]

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Isotopic fractionation

This is the second of my posts on Thomas Gold’s book Deep Hot Biosphere, in which Gold espouses the radical idea that global petroleum and gas reserves are formed from geochemical reactions deep in the Earth’s crust. In contrast, the vast majority of experts think he's wrong. Fascinated by this book and the controversy around it, I decided to look into the scientific data on petroleum’s origins and arrive at my own conclusions. Like I said before, I’m not a geologist; I just did the best I could with the limited time I had.

One of the strongest pieces of evidence in favor of the biogenic theory is the study of stable isotope fractionation. All elements have isotopes. Hydrogen vs. deuterium, carbon-12 vs. carbon-13, oxygen-16 vs. oxygen-17 or oxygen-18, and so on. The only difference between an atom of carbon-12 and an atom of carbon-13 is that carbon-13 is about 8% heavier. Since carbon-13 is more-or-less chemically identical to carbon-12, we find it in all the same places that we find the usual carbon isotope. It’s in atmospheric carbon dioxide, in the carbon in coal, oil, natural gas, and in our the carbon that comprises our bodies. Carbon-13 atoms hang around all over the place and do the exact same things as carbon-12 atoms do...

Except. Being just a tad heavier that its more populous cousin makes carbon-13 undergo some chemical reactions and processes at very slightly different rates. For example, its heavier, so carbon-13 dioxide evaporates from sea water into the atmosphere at slightly slower rate than its more common cousin carbon-12 dioxide. So, the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 in atmospheric carbon dioxide is ever so slightly lower than in pools of carbon.

Over the decades, geologists have gotten good at tracing the minute differences in the carbon-13 to carbon-12 ratio, and similar rations for other isotopes. One thing they found, that proponents of both theories seem to agree on, is that oil and gas have are depleted in carbon-13.

The biogenic camp (e.g., these guys) explains the depletion of carbon-13 through the chemical reactions of photosynthesis: the atmospheric carbon dioxide has to diffuse through leaves. In oceans, it has to dissolve in water before aquatic plants can fix it. These processes favors lighter carbon. It has to react chemically with other metabolites in the plants biochemistry. These reactions, too, happen faster to lighter carbons. So the organics sediments that eventually formed oil are depleted in light carbon. Viola. Oil and natural gas will naturally be depleted in heavy carbon, carbon-13, as a result.

Gold’s theory holds that oil and gas come from methane trapped in the planet since its formation and slowly diffusing outward from the Earth’s mantle. But, on its way out, it gets trapped in the very tiny pores of a variety of rocks. It has to diffuse through. Diffusion is faster for light carbon. Eventually, in the deep crust, chemical reactions transform the methane (now depleted in heavy carbon) to oil and gas. Viola.

But, both camps can’t be right. Luckily, it seems recently geologists have gotten more sophisticated with their isotopic analyses. They’ve been analyzing the isotopic fractionation of not only the carbon in oil and gas, but also the hydrogen. And they’ve been correlating these results.

Also, geologists have turned to helium-3 for answers. Helium-4, the more common isotope of helium, is formed from the decay of various radioactive minerals in the crust. Helium-3, in contrast, is formed only in stars. The helium-3 on Earth, then , is left over from when the planet formed from stardust four billion years ago. It’s still leaking slowly out of the mantle. So if sample of natural gas has a ratio of helium-3 to helium-4 that is relatively high, it’s a sign that at least some of the gas may have originated in the mantle.

With these new techniques, scientists have found abiogenic hydrocarbons in the Earth’s crust! But, the isotopic signature of this abiogenic gases differed strongly from what the Gold’s abiogenic theory would have predicted, and way different than the observed signature for commercially exploited gas reserves. The upshot: abiogenic hydrocarbons apparently account for only a minute portion of the subterranean hydrocarbons on Earth. Gold's theory, at least as he spelled it out in his book, doesn't seem to overcome the more recent isotopic measurements.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

MIT alum and Energy Club member David Berry wins Technology Review's TR35 Innovator of the Year!

Congrats to MIT energy alum and active Energy Club member David Berry, currently a principal at Flagship Ventures, for being named Technology Review Magazine's "TR35 Innovator of the Year" in large part for his innovative scientific and entrepreneurial work in founding LS9, a Flagship-founded company using synthetic biology to coax organisms into making petroleum-like fuels.

Way to go David!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

No such thing as fossil fuels?

About eight years too late, I finally got around to reading Deep Hot Biosphere by the late Thomas Gold. This controversial book expounded Gold's theories that petroleum and natural gas are not formed from biological sources. Instead, he argued that petroleum, natural gas, and even (non-anthracite) coals were formed from geologic, not biologic, processes.

The title of the book comes from Gold's attempt to explain the presence of molecular "fingerprints" of once-living organisms in petroluem, for example, the carbon skeletons of cholesterols and other lipids have been found in oil. The traditional theory says these molecular traces are simply evidence of the once-living organic matter from which petroleum was eventually formed. Gold, however, rectified his abiogenic theory with these molecular tracers by positing the widespread existence and activity of microorganisms deep in the earth, in the pores of metamorphic and igneous rocks. Why stop there? He then went on to argue that the deep hot biosphere is a more likely spot for the origin of life than the primordial pool we're always hearing about.

Sound pretty far fetched? It did to me too. But, I'm an industrial microbiologist by training, so I was intrigued by the possibility of deep subterranean bacteria. Plus, the energy implications of Gold's theory are huge. If oil's not formed from fossils, it's not a fossil fuel! So I thought it was worth checking out.

I didn't take Gold's word at face value. First I went hunting for criticims of Gold's views out there in the blogosphere. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found a lot of noise and vitriol but not too much cool-headed explications of modern geological understanding. Wikipedia, as usual, was marginally useful for background, it was too hard to get a reliable survey of modern geochemistry from Wikipedia alone. So in the end I relied on an introductory textbook in organic geochemistry as a Moriarty to Gold's Holmes.

In the next couple of posts, I want to discuss what, to my non-geologist layman eyes, look like key points of evidence for and against Gold's theory. Hopefully the knowledgeable will drop by to correct me if I mess up the planet science too bad. First up, I'll deal with the most arcane, difficult to explain data: stable isotope fractionation. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 13, 2007

MIT Energy Clubber Bilal Zuberi argues for "A Drive Toward Fuel Economy" in the Boston Globe

MIT alumnus and Energy Club member, Bilal Zuberi, VP at GeO2 Technologies in Woburn, MA - a start-up that is developing advanced diesel aftertreatment technology - had a great op-ed piece published in the Boston Globe today. Enjoy!

"A Drive Toward Fuel Economy"
by Bilal Zuberi, VP at GeO2 Technologies in Woburn, MA

"IN THE LAST two decades, the automotive industry has been ablaze with innovation -- from cars that park themselves to cars that "clean up" after themselves. Literally, the automobile has grown smarter as technology has enabled manufacturers to rethink their old ways. Unfortunately, the foresight ends there.

This past week, two bills designed to increase fuel economy standards in the United States were introduced in the House of Representatives and promptly shot down. With them, the hope that industry standards would finally catchup with innovations in the field diminished as well. Indeed, Congress has dragged its feet for far too long in forcing automakers to improve fueleconomy.

Unfortunately, this latest retreat in Congress is not the first time proposed changes -- changes so minor they were not nearly enough to begin with -- have hinted at improvement, only to fade rapidly. In his State of the Union speech in January, President Bush suggested a 4 percent annual increase in the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks by 2017. His words did little to catalyze any concrete change. Later, a proposal to increase fuel economy standards by 4 percent annually from 2020 to 2031 died an early death in the House. In short, the United States is no better off today than it was 20 years ago as far as fuel efficiency is concerned.

Compare the United States to similar economies: European fleets already average 43 miles per gallon and Japanese fleets are reaching 50 miles per gallon. While there are only two car models in the United States that achieve greater than 40 miles per gallon (both hybrid vehicles), there are more than 113 such vehicles in Europe.

The most astounding fact is that many of the European high fuel-economy vehicles are produced by US car makers. How can the government let manufacturers continue to convince the nation that a fuel economy of over 35 miles per gallon is difficult to achieve? Any rational person should not be willing to accept these manufacturers' excuses.

If existing technology for vehicles with higher fuel economy has succeeded in Europe and parts of Asia in terms of both safety and commercial profit, why not implement policies to make similar vehicles more accessible in theUnited States? The success of Toyota Prius and other gasoline hybrids across the United States shows that there is verifiable national demand for more fuel-efficient cars.

Equally important is the fact that hybrid technology is not the only way to reach higher fuel economy; nearly 50 percent of the cars sold in Europe are clean diesel. Clean diesel autos not only provide a much higher fuel economy than gasoline models, but also run faster and more efficiently and last longer. Members of Congress should try renting one the next time they travel abroad.

A closer look at the diesel industry shows that innovations such as the nationwide availability of low-sulfur diesel and the commercial success of diesel particulate filters (the filters remove more than 99 percent of pollutants from diesel exhaust) have made clean diesels cleaner than other vehicles on the road. They also provide a hefty bonus of nearly 20-30 percent better fuel efficiency than gasoline engines and low CO2 emissions.

Clearly, the barrier to improving US fuel economy is not technological; the real obstacle is lack of political will. Automakers are demonstrating a remarkable ability to resist any changes in mileage standards, and instead they are producing larger and heavier cars with unnecessary amenities, such as chilled glove boxes. A better way to improve fuel economy would be for the government to let market forces do the work, which is what Europe has done so successfully over the past few decades.

Like Europe, the United States should price fuel at its actual cost. It is estimated that the US government subsidizes fuel at a cost of roughly $3-$10 per gallon, if one considers all the tax breaks accorded to the oil companies as well as the costs associated with regulatory oversight, pollution cleanup, and liability. The real price of gasoline in the United States, without the subsidies, would not differ much from the $6 per gallon that it is in Europe. What would you drive if you had to pay more than $100 the next time you filled up your tank? I know I would look for better performance with higher fuel economy."

Sunday, August 12, 2007

What ails cleantech investing?

It's no big secret these days that venture capitalists, in general, have gotten euphoric about energy. Money is flowing into the space. Opportunities are huge. Energy, we are constantly reminded, is a trillion dollar industry.

With stakes that high, it's more important than ever to make good bets. What makes new ventures succeed? What can investors be doing differently?

This Wednesday, the Energy Club has a great lecture/discussion session lined up on this exact topic, featuring seasoned entrepreneur and clean tech investor Dave Miller.

The focus of our discussion will be on clean tech investing, but over at Xconomy, Bill Aulet has suggested that part of the problem for investing may be too narrow a focus. He wants to see more money going after hydrocarbons and efficiency.

Given the long cycle times for new clean technologies to come online, focusing on the familiar may make investment sense. But the questions I'll be bringing to the table on Wednesday are, Is it good policy to encourage such shifts? And, how else can can we speed up the introduction of new energy technologies?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

MIT Photovoltaics Community Social Brings Out MIT PV Rockstars

The MIT Energy Club organized "MIT Photovoltaics Community Social" held this past Thursday at the Muddy Charles Pub brought together 40 of the best and brightest of MIT's rapidly growing Photovoltaics community. I have been involved with the MIT PV community since 2004 and am amazed by how much it has grown right before my eyes over the past three years.

MIT has not traditionally been a photovoltaics power house, but with the emergence of Michael Rogol, MIT ESD PhD Student, as one of the recognized leaders in analyzing and understanding the global PV market and with the notable hirings of prominent PV professors, including Tonio Buonassisi and others, MIT appears to be poised to become a leader in PV. (The key current profs at MIT who have been leading the PV/solar charge include Vladimir Bulovic (organics), Marc Baldo (organics), Ely Sachs (silicon), Dan Nocera (photocatalysis), and Mougi Bawendi (quantum dots).)

Hosted by Tonio Buonassisi, MIT's newest PV hire and first ever "pure play" photovoltaics hire, and David Danielson, MIT Energy Club founder, this event brought out folks spanning the gamut: from scientists and engineers, to industry leaders and entrepreneurs.

Attendee Highlights:
Peter Bermel, recent MIT PhD Physics alum and founder of StarSolar - an MIT startup that is applying photonic crystal technology to photovoltaics for light trapping and which won the "New England Energy Innovation Collaborative's $150K Energy Business Creation Contest" this past year..... Marcie Black, MIT alum and founder of BandGapEngineering, a new Boston area nano solar startup.... Evergreen Solar was represented in force, with MIT alums Adam Lorenz (Engineer) and Nol Browne (Business Development) present, and perhaps most excitingly, photovoltaics legend Jack Hanoka, Evergreen Solar co-founder, former CTO, and current V.P. of Advanced Technology, made an appearance and was promptly swarmed by a horde of budding MIT photovoltaic technologists and entrepreneurs..... Alexi Arango, MIT PhD student working on organic PV under Prof. Vladimir Bulovic, and Eerik Hantsoo, PhD student working with Prof. Ely Sachs (inventor of Evergreen Solar's string ribbon silicon technology), among many others, represented the student PV contingent. Fergus Hurley, MIT Masters student working with Prof. John Kassakian on applying photonic crystal concepts to a new brand of PV called "thermophotovoltaics" was part of the crowd as well...... Brendan Neagle, VP of Business Development at Borrego Solar, a fast growing PV installer which is just beginning to tap into the New England market with Brendan's upcoming move to Boston..... Bob Clark-Phelps, formerly with Evergreen Solar, was present representing Solasta, a new solar startup out of Boston College..... Kurt Keville, staff member at the Insitute for Soldier Nanotechnologies and leader of the MIT Solar Decathlon Team, was also in attendance. This MIT team is building a modular, moveable green home for the annual Solar Decathlon Competition to be held in the National Mall in Washington, DC. (Consider supporting the MIT Solar Decathlon Team by buying a ticket for their raffle. They are raffling off a Hybrid Toyota Camry along with many other cool energy related prizes.)

The event was a great success and if the current rate of growth of PV enthusiasm at MIT persists, I expect that the next event in three months time will have almost twice as many MIT affililiated professors, students, entrepreneurs, and industry folks who are transforming the regional and global PV landscape in attendance.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Recent MIT Energy Club Alums Begin to Make an Impact on the Energy Industry

It's exciting to see the MIT Energy Club's first round of alumni enter the energy industry and start to make an impact.

2007 Graduates:

Both Alissa Jones, Mech Eng MS '07 and Energy Club EnergyNight Chair/MIT Energy Conference Logistics Director, and Joel Conkling, Sloan '07 alum and fromer Energy Club Treasurer, are joining McKinsey's growing energy practice (Alissa in Atlanta, Joel in Houston)... Brian Walsh, Sloan '07 and Managing Director of MIT Energy Conference '07, is working as a Senior Associate at S.F.-based clean technology venture firm, Nth Power.... Nick Cravalho, Sloan '07, has accepted a position in product management at at Miasole, an SF Bay Area thin film solar firm working on CIGS..... Keith Peltzman, Sloan' 07 and MIT Energy Conference Solar Panel Lead two years in a row ('06/'07), will be starting his own solar design/installation firm in the Philadelphia, PA area..... Kristian Bodek, TPP MS '07 and two time Energy Club Vice President, has just accepted a position at Cambridge Energy Research Associates.... David Danielson, PhD '07 Mat Sci and founder of the MIT Energy Club and MIT Energy Conference, has accepted a position as a Senior Associate in venture firm General Catalyst Partners' Energy Practice.... Anthony Fotopoulos, Sloan '07 and MIT Energy Conference '06 Biofuels Panel Lead, has accepted a position at photovoltaics installer/integrator Conergy, in Colorado.... Greg Singleton, outgoing Energy Club president, will be working as a Research Analyst at Point Carbon's U.S. office in Washington, DC. Point Carbon is a leading suscription based carbon markets news provider and consultancy.

Other Recent Graduates:

Mike Berlinski, TPP MS alum and founding Energy Club Vice President is working at G.E. Energy Financial Services in CT under another prominent MIT energy alum and former CERA rockstar Steve Taub.... Lori Simpson, TPP MS alum and MIT Energy Conference '06 Nuclear Power Panel Lead, is now working at Constellation Energy Commodities Group in Baltimore, MD under Group CTO and another prominent MIT energy alum, Group CFO Andrew Good.... Mark Bohm, TPP MS alum and MIT Energy Conference '06 Clean Carbon Panel Lead, is currently working at BC Hydro, British Columbia's dominant electric power provider and utility.... Salem Esber, TPP MS and former Energy Club Discussion Chair, is currently working at PA Consulting, an energy consulting firm, in Denver, CO.... Libby Wayman, Mech Eng ME alum and founding Secretary of the Energy Club, has co-founded Promethean Power, an MIT solar thermal technology start-up focused on providing electric power and cooling to the developing world using locally available infrastructure (She is currently working for the company in Lesotho in Africa)... Nol Browne, Sloan '06 alum and co-founder of the MIT Energy Conference, is currently working in business development at Evergreen Solar, a Marlborough MA-based solar module manufacturer based upon the technology of MIT Mech Eng Prof Emmanuel Sachs... Also, I just found out that Nick McKenna, recent ESD PhD alum and founding treasurer of the Energy Club, is making a move from McKinsey's Houston Office to ConocoPhilips, and is very excited about it....

Other recent (or not so recent!) MIT Energy Club alums/members, please feel free to post what you are up to by clicking below....


MIT Photovoltaics Community Summer Social - TODAY - Thurs, 7/19/07, Muddy Charles Pub

The MIT Energy Club is holding an "MIT Photovoltaics Community Social" at MIT's campus pub, the Muddy Charles Pub TODAY, Thurs 7/19/07 from 6-8PM. The event will be hosted by myself and MIT's recent first-ever "pure play" photovoltaics professor Tonio Buonassisi.

Expected attendees include MIT professors, MIT graduate students, and industry folks from Evergreen Solar, Stellaris, RSI Silicon, and a number of other regional solar companies.

This social is one of a series of events sponsored by the MIT Energy Club to build the MIT PV community, which has included a number of socials as well as two MIT IAP courses on Photovoltaics.

Slides from these courses can be found at this link.

Hope to see everyone there!