Interview with co-chair of MIT Energy Research Council

From an interview with Ernest J. Moniz, co-chair of the panel that wrote the report.

Satisfying a possible doubling of global energy demand while supplanting fossil fuels is “perhaps the greatest single challenge facing our nation and world in the 21st century,” a Massachusetts Institute of Technology panel wrote today in a draft research strategy report for the institute.

The MIT Energy Research Council, appointed by MIT President Susan Hockfield last year, is calling for a sweeping array of multidisciplinary research programs. Its report covers everything from oil extraction to carbon dioxide sequestration, from nuclear fusion to efficient freight management systems.

Its co-chair, Ernest J. Moniz, an MIT physicist and a former Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, explains the council’s thinking and recommendations.

Technology Review: Headlines these days are full of talk about $3-a-gallon gas. What are the fundamental energy issues facing the world today?

Ernest Moniz: As we cast it in our report, there are three major drivers. The first is simply the supply and demand equation, particularly driven by developing and emerging economies. One sees in most projections a doubling of energy use and a tripling of electricity use by mid-century. This is a staggering problem, or challenge, particularly when you realize that today 86 percent of primary energy comes from fossil fuels and conventional oil production may be peaking.

The second driver is security — the security of oil supply and also nuclear proliferation.

And third is environmental, especially climate change. If society gets serious about controlling greenhouse-gas emissions, this would be the most profound challenge to the structure of our energy supply, because that supply is based on fossil fuel. Controlling carbon dioxide, while also doubling energy use, is a rather remarkable challenge to contemplate.

TR: What is the timetable for R&D and deployment to get the job done?

EM: It’s useful to think in terms of a 50-year timetable. For doing something about climate change, these next 50 years are critical. Fifty years is also the characteristic time for major changes of the energy supply system, if you look at the transition from wood to coal — then oil coming in, then gas coming in. Well, if we have a challenge we need to meet in 50 years, and it takes 50 years to turn over the energy system, that defines a challenge that you must begin to meet today. The energy challenge is — if not the primary area — certainly one of the primary areas for the application of science, engineering, and policy to meet real human needs.

[on page 3 of the interview, Moniz discusses carbon sequestration, hydrogen and nuclear] …

Excerpts from “The Report of the MIT Energy Research Council”

Go to on the original for the complete 62-page report (PDF)

Executive Summary

This report describes a response by MIT to the need for new global supplies of affordable, sustainable energy to power the world. The need for workable energy options is perhaps the greatest single challenge facing our nation and the world in the 21st century. The acuteness of the challenge at this point in time results from the “perfect storm” of supply and demand, security, and environmental concerns:

• a projected doubling of energy use and tripling of electricity demand within a half century, calling for a substantial increase in fossil fuel supplies or dramatic transformation of the fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure

• geological and geopolitical realities concerning the availability of oil and, to some extent, natural gas – specifically the concentration of resources and political instability in the Middle East – underlie major security concerns

• greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion are increasingly at the center of decisions about how the global energy system evolves – one that carries on in the “business as usual” overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels or one that introduces technologies and policies that greatly improve efficiency, dramatically expand use of less carbon-intensive or “carbon free” energy, and implement large scale carbon dioxide capture and sequestration.

…we have reached consensus on the need for a broad initiative that

  1. provides the enabling basic science and technology that may underpin major transformation of the global energy system in several decades,
    1. renewable energy (solar, biofuels, wind, geothermal, waves)
    2. energy storage and conversion
    3. application to energy of core enabling science and technology that have made dramatic strides in the last decade or so (e.g., superconducting and cryogenic components, nanotechnology and materials, biotechnology, information technology, transport phenomena)
  2. develops the technology and policy needed to make today’s energy systems more effective, secure, and environmentally responsible
    1. advanced nuclear reactors and fuel cycles that address cost, safety, waste, and nonproliferation objectives
    2. affordable supply of fossil-derived fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) from both conventional and unconventional sources and processes
    3. key enablers such as carbon sequestration
    4. thermal conversion and utilization for dramatically enhanced energy efficiency, including in industrial uses
    5. enhanced reliability, robustness, and resiliency of energy delivery networks
    6. system integration in energy supply, delivery, and use
    7. learning from the past and understanding current public attitudes towards energy systems
    8. sound economic analysis of proposed policies for energy development and greenhouse gas mitigation
    9. understanding and facilitating the energy technology innovation process
    10. in-depth integrative energy and technology policy studies that draw upon faculty across the campus
  3. creates the energy technology and systems design needed for a rapidly developing world.
    1. science and policy of climate change
    2. advanced energy-efficient building technologies
    3. advanced transportation systems, from novel vehicle technologies and new fuels to systems design, including passenger and freight networks
    4. “giga-city” design and development, particularly in the developing world.

Because of the magnitude of the proposed program at MIT, we advocate phasing in research thrusts in these three areas over the next several years. Because we are fortunate at MIT to have significant breadth and depth, we have many options for structuring the portfolio. A starting set of projects might include solar power, nuclear power systems, and integration of the science and policy of climate change as lead thrusts in the three categories above. At the same time it is important to seed other initiatives to bring them on-line as additional research thrusts in subsequent years, and the extensive lists above demonstrate a wealth of candidates for early focus. Likely areas for these projects include electrochemical storage and conversion and biofuels in the first category, multiscale modeling and simulation (e.g., for energy conversion and high efficiency) and subsurface energy science and engineering (e.g., for enhanced oil recovery and carbon dioxide sequestration) in the second category, and energy efficient buildings and transportation technology and systems in the third. …

1.1 Energy supply and demand

The enormity of the global energy supply chain, and its centrality to nearly every societal activity, conditions all discussions of energy technology and policy. A multi-trillion dollar/year business supplies about 450 Exajoules (EJ, or 1018 joules); equivalently, we “burn” energy at a rate over 14 Terawatts (TW, or trillion watts). About 86% is supplied by fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas. The United States uses about a quarter of the total.

Figure 1.1 [see original for figure] shows per capita GDP and energy use for a representative set of countries. The correlation is apparent and underscores the developing world’s drive to increase aggressively affordable energy supply. This economic impulse will be the principal driver for the anticipated doubling of global energy use by mid-century. China alone has been increasing energy use at about 10%/year, with profound impacts on global energy markets.

The situation for electricity is even more challenging. The United States National Academy of Engineering chose electrification as the greatest engineering achievement of the twentieth century, thereby acknowledging its pervasive role in enhancing quality of life. Globally, about 16 trillion kWh of electricity are generated annually, with per capita use shown in Fig. 1.2 against the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) – a measure of health, education, and economic well-being. Developing country needs are again apparent. [See original for figure.] “Business as usual” scenarios suggest a tripling of electricity generation in fifty years. Even then, 1.4 billion people will still be without electricity in a quarter century, and many more than that still well down the “HDI trajectory” at mid-century.

The supply challenge can be mitigated dramatically by demand-side action. Despite the overall correlation of energy and GDP, Figure 1 displays meaningful variations in “energy intensity” in different societies with comparable standards of living, such as Western Europe and the United States. The consequences for energy supply depending on what trajectory is followed by developing and emerging economies are enormous. The difference in Chinese energy supply alone when its GDP/person is doubled (likely in only ten to fifteen years) is equivalent to 10% of today’s global energy market, depending on whether China has the US or Western Europe energy intensity.

Not only do fossil fuels dominate energy consumption today, but “business as usual” scenarios predict that will be the same for many tomorrows. Of course, the availability of these relatively inexpensive, high energy density fuels has driven profound societal transformation since the Industrial Revolution. However, the continued availability of oil at low cost over the next decades has been cast in doubt, and demand may simply not be met at acceptable cost without major change in how we supply and use energy.

1.2 Energy and security

These challenges to oil supply raise familiar security issues since our transportation sector is almost totally dependent on petroleum-derived liquid fuels and because of geological and geopolitical realities about their availability. Increasingly, similar concerns are voiced about natural gas. Competition for supplies, such as that emerging in the Far East, can directly and indirectly raise regional and global security problems. These realities place a premium on new technologies and policies that lead to diversification of oil and gas supplies and that develop alternate transportation technologies and fuels that require less oil and gas consumption. The challenge is considerable. For example, the “solution” that largely preserves the current transportation and fuels paradigm is large-scale introduction of alternative liquid fuels derived from coal, gas, or biomass. However, the sheer magnitude of the energy content in today’s use of oil, over 150 EJ/year (or almost 5 TW), together with conversion efficiencies, means that any substantial displacement of oil in this way will have profound implications on other energy and land uses. Multiple technology and policy approaches will be essential.

This is not the only security concern associated with energy supply and use. Extended energy delivery systems are vulnerable to disruption, whether by natural occurrences such as hurricanes or by intentional sabotage. There are also concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation facilitated by the expansion worldwide of nuclear power and components of the nuclear fuel cycle. In particular, high natural gas prices and climate change concerns have led to considerable global interest in new nuclear fuel cycle development, potentially with substantial deployment in new parts of the world and a risk that some might use the expansion to disguise nuclear weapons ambitions.

1.3 Energy and environment

Environmental concerns arising from fossil fuel combustion have a long history, reaching back to regulations on coal burning in thirteenth century London imposed by Edward I. More recently, local and regional effects such as urban smog and acid rain have led to new pollution policies and technologies. However, the more challenging problem of greenhouse gas emissions, and specifically the emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, is now front and center in the international evaluation of energy options. Clearly, serious attempts at carbon control in a world dominated by fossil fuels cannot be implemented in a “business as usual” scenario. The basic choices are improved efficiency in the continuing use of fossil fuels, dramatic expansion of less carbon-intensive or “carbon-free” technologies, and potentially large-scale use of carbon dioxide capture and sequestration.

Again, the magnitude of the challenge deserves comment. As a benchmark for discussion, we take limiting atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations below a doubling of preindustrial levels as a reasonable target. While such a target does not have a rigorous basis in terms of climate modification and societal cost and disruption, the great majority of engaged scientists would view this as a prudent limit at our current state of knowledge. Because of the cumulative nature of CO2 in the atmosphere, the target can be translated into a CO2 “emissions budget” that is somewhat offset by CO2 uptake in the oceans, plants, and soils. With today’s understanding of the global carbon cycle, a business-asusual approach to energy supply and use will exhaust that “budget” shortly after midcentury. Practically speaking, the increase in emissions must be slowed in the immediate future, and then reduced back to or below today’s emissions rate by mid-century, in the face of a projected doubling of energy use at that time. This can be thought of as adding another global energy infrastructure of today’s scale (recall, 14 TW!) but without greenhouse gas emissions, and at acceptable economic and environmental cost. A significant “de-linking” of energy supply growth and conventional fossil fuel dependence is called for. Once again, multiple supply and end-use technologies will be required – both megawatts and “negawatts”. There is no silver bullet. Further, the inertia of the system – the inertia of large sunk capital costs, atmospheric inertia, policy and political inertia –requires strong action now if we envision success over many decades. Multiple technologies and policies must work together.

This “perfect storm” of supply and demand, security, and environmental concerns calls for a strong science, technology, and policy research focus at MIT and elsewhere. Interdisciplinary research efforts bringing together the talents of many faculty, students, and staff can bring new impetus. A portfolio of such efforts is needed to address central questions for an uncertain future, a future that will require a robust set of options. It is clearly an agenda well beyond the reach of any single institution, but one to which MIT, with its depth and breadth of science and engineering and history of interdisciplinary research and of industry collaboration, can make major contributions while educating the next generation of leaders.