MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XX No. 2
November / December 2007
A Beacon Beyond Our Borders
M.I.T.'s Real Assets
A Call for Nominations
Disagreements and Community Building
Should MIT Increase the Size of the Faculty?
Avoiding a Rush to Judgement:
Implications of the Star Simpson Affair
The purpose of faculty meetings?
Not the Way to Treat Family
The MIT Energy Initiative: One Year Later
Faculty Renewal
Can't Stop Laughing
Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill: Understanding the U.S. News Rankings
Faculty Quality of Life
A White Paper on How MIT Should Think About Institutional International Exchanges
The MIT Office of Admissions:
Choosing the Best Candidates
and Handling Them With Care
A Meeting with Disaster: Planning for Emergencies and Extended Outages
The Pitfalls of Digital Rights Management
Student Global Experiences
(IROP and Survey Results)
Student Global Experiences
(MISTI Participation)
Printable Version

The MIT Energy Initiative: One Year Later

Ernest J. Moniz and Robert C. Armstrong

The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) was formally established in November 2006, with a broad mandate to address global energy and associated environmental challenges:

  • Meeting growing energy demand: Most projections anticipate doubling of global energy use and tripling of electricity use by mid-century, even with a continuing decline in energy intensity of the economy. Energy delivery systems will be similarly challenged.
  • Enhancing energy security: Among a host of intersections between energy use and security concerns, the geophysical and geopolitical realities of oil stand out in the public discussion. At its core, this issue arises from the near-total dependence on oil for transportation fuel.
  • Mitigating the environmental impacts of energy production, delivery, and use, most especially climate risks associated with greenhouse-gas emissions and global warming.

It can be plausibly argued that these energy imperatives form a blueprint for the preeminent science, engineering, and analysis challenges of the twenty-first century: meeting our energy requirements in ways that serve basic human needs for security, a healthy environment, and a sound economy.

Why MIT?

President Hockfield set the MIT Energy Initiative in motion during her May 2005 inaugural address that highlighted MIT’s “… institutional responsibility to address the challenges of energy and the environment.”

MIT is both one of the world’s premiere research universities and a recognized leader in moving ideas into the marketplace. The Institute’s strengths as an engine for innovation include:

  • exceptional faculty, staff, and students
  • excellence in research
  • a creative but grounded approach to complex problems
  • an interdisciplinary research tradition
  • long-established experience with industrial collaboration
  • education of innovators and entrepreneurs
  • international partnerships
  • convening power for key dialogue on critical issues
  • and a practiced ability to serve as an “honest broker” in framing and analyzing important societal issues with significant scientific and technological content.

Building on these attributes, MITEI is designed to accelerate innovation in energy science, technology, and policy through the integrated application of the Institute’s cutting-edge capabilities in the physical and life sciences, engineering, management, planning, and social science. MITEI is also working to harness the talent and dedication of its students to address these critical energy and environmental challenges. Finally, MITEI seeks to elevate the energy policy discourse as an “honest broker,” providing leaders in government and industry with unbiased analysis of energy issues, informed energy policy options, and opportunities for critical energy dialogue.

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A Brief History

President Hockfield’s call to mobilize the resources and capabilities of the Institute was met by the formation of the Energy Research Council (ERC) – 16 faculty from all five Schools charged with recommending an implementation plan. Well over 100 faculty and senior staff came together in multidisciplinary groups to provide the ERC over 40 concept papers that laid out research capabilities and interests. In addition, a faculty task force chaired by Professor Jefferson Tester, supplemented by numerous student inputs, shaped both the recommended education plan and a proposal to address campus energy management as a learning opportunity. The ERC report can be found on the MITEI Website at

Following an extended campus comment period, the implementation plan was largely adopted and a new Energy Council, again drawn from all five Schools, was appointed by the President and Provost in November 2006 to carry out the plan. The Council now includes Professors Steven Ansolabehere, Robert Armstrong (Deputy Director), Angela Belcher, John Deutch, Leon Glicksman, Rebecca Henderson, Ernest Moniz (Director), and Emanuel Sachs.

To achieve its objectives, MITEI has established four initiative components: education; campus energy management; industry research partnerships, and; outreach.

Two task forces help MITEI implement its mandate from President Hockfield. The Education Task Force, co-chaired by Professors Belcher and Tester, includes two subcommittees. The Energy Curriculum Subcommittee chaired by Donald Lessard is assessing the existing curriculum, and evaluating and coordinating undergraduate and graduate energy-related subjects. The Undergraduate Energy Minor Subcommittee chaired by Susan Silbey is considering the development of an Institute-wide energy minor.

The Campus Energy Management Task Force, co-chaired by Professor Leon Glicksman and Theresa Stone, MIT Executive Vice President and Treasurer, combines input from faculty, students, and MIT administrators responsible for all campus facilities. Activities include improving and planning campus energy use and supporting student activities that use the campus as a laboratory for research and education. This Task Force is focused on transforming the MIT campus into a learning laboratory and providing input to new campus construction.

The Laboratory for Energy and the Environment has been brought under the MITEI umbrella, providing essential administrative support for MITEI. Similarly, MITEI is leveraging the strong Corporate Relations/ILP network to attract corporate financial support, and Resource Development to attract individual donors and foundations. This avoids duplicating efforts and minimizes the buildup of support infrastructures.

Finally, to help guide the Initiative and shape the MIT response to our energy imperatives, President Hockfield has established an External Advisory Board, comprised of high-level members from industry, NGOs, academia, and think tanks. It will be chaired by former Secretary of State George Shultz, an MIT alum and former faculty member, and is scheduled for its first meeting in mid-January, 2008.

Status Report

MITEI’s industry partnership supports research, education, fellowships, seed funding, UROPs, student activities, colloquia, and outreach. Founding Members and Sustaining Members (minimum $5M/ or $1M/year for five years) support sponsored research projects aligned with their strategic interests. They also support fellowships and contribute to a seed fund to support innovative start-up projects solicited from across the entire campus. MITEI’s inaugural Founding Member is BP, supporting a flagship research program in coal conversion with minimized CO2 emissions. Ford is the inaugural Sustaining Member with a focus on advanced automotive technologies and associated fuels. Other Sustaining Members include Chevron, working on remote, ultra-deepwater research, and b_TEC (Barcelona), with an interest in renewable energy.

Two additional categories of Associate and Affiliate Members have been established to involve smaller companies, investors, entrepreneurs, alumni, individuals, and others who do not provide sponsored research funding but wish to become part of a robust community of energy innovators. The inaugural Associate Member is Ormat Technologies, a leader in geothermal systems. The inaugural Affiliate Member is Phil Rettger (another MIT alum) of OptiSolar. The student-organized Energy Club is an important partner in MITEI activities, helping to manage the Affiliates program and hosting the first Affiliates’ “energy salon” in early December.

With current commitments, MITEI will be able to make about 20 graduate fellowships available to departments for fall 2008, and to allocate about a million dollars of research seed funds through a campus-wide competitive process.

The first solicitation for innovative seed projects was issued with a November 13, 2007 due date for proposals. Ongoing discussions with prospective members strongly suggest that several more memberships will materialize in each category over the remainder of this year, thereby increasing both the number of fellowships and the available seed funds.

There is, of course, ongoing energy-related research by many faculty, and this has been the case for many years – estimates of total MIT faculty involved in some type of energy research are about 15%. A goal of MITEI is to supplement these efforts with sustained multi-faculty multi-disciplinary efforts focused on research thrusts central to the energy/environment challenges indicated earlier. It is also the case that, in parallel with MITEI, other programs with significant energy-related components have been established under the leadership of various faculty; examples include substantial collaborative programs with Cyprus, Portugal, and Masdar (Abu Dhabi), and a developing one with Singapore.

While a number of commitments remain to be nailed down, the prospective MITEI-facilitated research portfolio may have the following outlines based on the recommendations in the ERC report:

Transformations: A clean energy future will demand deployment at scale of renewable energy sources and of key enabling technologies such as economical energy storage. We envision substantial programs in solar energy, in biofuels, and in designer materials for applications such as batteries, fuel cells, and thermoelectrics. Nanotechnology and biotechnology will be key tools in these programs.

Innovations: The slow turnover of energy infrastructure and the dominance of fossil fuels will require improving today’s energy systems – improved efficiency in the use of fossil fuels, elimination of atmospheric CO2 emissions, smart delivery systems, and advanced nuclear power, for example. Substantial programs are likely to center on advanced coal conversion processes, enhanced oil and natural gas production, carbon dioxide sequestration, advanced nuclear fuel cycles with a focus on waste management, and intelligent infrastructure that combines sensors, controls, communications, and distributed decision-making for improved energy efficiency.

Global systems: Many of the energy/environment challenges are inherently global in nature. Climate change is obviously in this category and the successful MIT program on the science and policy of global change has seen and will see substantial expansion ­ for example, higher fidelity treatment of the transportation sector and comparative analysis of climate policies have been supported. The School of Architecture and Planning will expand work in China, while major new programs in efficient building design and in transportation systems are in the early development stages.

Notable advances in MITEI’s education focus this year include a very generous grant from the Kabcenell Foundation supporting a variety of curricular initiatives. MIT has also been awarded a Clare Booth Luce Postdoctoral Fellowship Program for Women in Energy, to be filled starting fall 2008. Other opportunities, such as a MITEI Practice School, are under discussion.

Similarly, the Campus Energy Task Force is into its second round of funding student grants for campus energy projects and is developing the concept of the campus as a learning laboratory. The group is providing input to new campus construction. A very exciting parallel development is the generation of student projects, such as a dorm efficiency competition (won by McCormick) and an award for producing biodiesel from campus waste. Sloan and Architecture faculty are also planning a research project to understand the barriers to energy efficiency in complex institutions such as MIT.

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“A New Global Energy System”

The enormity of the global energy supply chain and its centrality to nearly every societal activity presents a daunting innovation challenge. Meeting energy security, increased demand, and climate change imperatives is made more difficult by the scale of the need. A multi-trillion dollar per year business supplies 450 exajoules of energy each year, or an energy “burn rate” of 14 terawatts. Estimates of replacement costs of the global energy infrastructure – a possible requirement for moving off fossil fuels and onto alternatives – are in the $12 trillion range. Climate change introduces urgency into the equation, as the 50-year time scale for exhausting a prudent global CO2 emissions “budget” is roughly the same as that for major transformation of our fossil fuel-based energy infrastructures in a business-as-usual future.

Within this context, the energy innovation challenge will be met by combining the strengths of the energy incumbents – with their highly developed distribution systems and customer base – with the entrepreneurial innovation culture that has strong roots at MIT and the surrounding “innovation ecosystem.” In addition to working directly on the underlying science, technology, and analysis, MIT and its faculty and students offer a focal point for an important conversation that must take place across the entire “energy innovation supply chain” – from the largest energy incumbents to the innovative technology risk-taking startups, from the policy community to the investment community.

This takes us back to President Hockfield’s 2005 address where she noted MIT’s “…responsibility to lead in this mission.” Since President Hockfield committed the Institute to a new initiative in energy, hundreds of students, faculty, and research staff have come together to help shape and implement this vision The structure of the MIT Energy Initiative is evolving to elicit and support the convergence of new ideas from MIT faculty, staff, students, and external partners ­ forming an intellectual engine that will underpin MIT’s leadership in helping to meet one of the preeminent challenges of the twenty-first century: establishing a new clean, secure, and sustainable global energy system.

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