What Are We Willing to Pay for Clean Energy?
There is no doubt that an abundant supply of clean energy to power the planet ranks as one of the top issues that must be satisfactorily addressed if future generations are to enjoy life as good or better than we know it today. We can no longer afford to burn fossil fuels indiscriminately without further endangering our atmosphere through the release of CO2. But unless a dramatic invention materializes to alter the economic advantage that oil, gas, and coal have over alternative sources of energy such as conservation, wind, nuclear, or solar, the future looks bleak.
We begin with conservation. One only has to observe the service vehicles, both those from MIT as well as outside contractors, parked on campus with their engines running, or the failure of efforts to get pedestrians to use revolving rather than conventional doors as they enter and exit our buildings, to map the scope of the problem. Most people just don’t think about conserving energy unless it hits them directly and immediately in their pocketbooks.
The Cape Wind project nearly 100 miles to our south dramatically illustrates the economic conflict underlying clean energy. Leaving aside the debate over the aesthetics of having a wind farm that destroys the beautiful vistas from the shores of Cape Cod, the islands, and all boating in the area, the electricity rates of homeowners in the vicinity of the wind farm will definitely rise, the only question being by how much. Are the residents of Massachusetts and elsewhere willing to pay more for clean energy and, if so, how much more? Are there engineering solutions that MIT laboratories can provide to reduce the cost?
Nuclear energy has been with us for a long time, starting with the power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. This technical marvel produced electricity that cost about seven times that of fossil fuel-based electricity generation plants. Matters have improved, but nuclear energy is still costly, owing to the price of dismantling outmoded facilities and the removal of spent fuel. And then there is the matter of what to do with nuclear waste and the concerns about safety. Since the late 1950s when the Shippingport plant went on line, the number of nuclear scientists being trained in the United States has declined dramatically.
MIT used to have one of the best nuclear chemistry groups in the world, but after the mid-’60s the training of PhD nuclear chemists diminished to the point that very few are awarded annually in the U.S. Improvements in nuclear energy technology might come through engineering, but we are ill equipped to address this potential source through basic science.
Solar energy has tremendous potential. Life on earth relies on the conversion of sunlight to chemical energy through photosynthesis. Green plants collect visible light photons from the Sun and use them to split water, forming chemical bonds from the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in H2O that can be subsequently broken with release of the stored energy to run all life processes. We ingest these chemicals in the form of salads or indirectly by eating animal products that consume green plants to live, and the fossil fuels that we burn were ultimately derived from the same source. To utilize sunlight for energy may be the best solution for the future. The process converts H2O photochemically and in a catalytic manner to O2 and H2, which in turn would be recombined in a fuel cell to make H2O, releasing the stored energy in the process.
An appropriate way to store that energy would be required to provide power when sunlight is not available. New, efficient, light collecting devices, catalysts for splitting water, storage devices, and a mechanism to distribute the electricity are all required. These needs are precisely what MIT research laboratories are exquisitely primed to address, and indeed important efforts are in progress across the Institute today, and in startups based on MIT inventions, to address them. The question only remains whether sufficient resources and leadership can be mustered to achieve success, again given the economic disadvantage versus burning fossil fuels that solar energy generation will surely face as it ramps up to the level needed on a global basis.
Finally, and as illustrated by Ernst Frankel’s article in the present issue of the Newsletter, when things go wrong in energy production, as occurred at the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, science, engineering, and public policy must all share the blame. Again, economics and politics seem to play a part. Are there corners cut in the design and implementation of deep sea drilling? Should we be even doing it? What policy makers are involved in the process now and going forward? Should the cost of the cleanup and assuring appropriate safety measures for future drilling not be factored into the economic equation that compares fossil fuel energy with alternative sources?
MIT faculty, students, and lab personnel have the perspective to help guide the country through these issues. Judging from the enormous enthusiasm for addressing energy-based topics on campus, we also have the will. No one can accurately forecast what the future will bring, but we can no longer afford to move forward with only the cheapest solutions, as we have done in the recent past decades. The young generation appreciates this point and wants to pursue clean energy even if it costs more. Will the older, and wealthier, leadership let them?