Prof Ernest Moniz on Innovations for Energy Efficiencies, Carbon-free Electricity and Alternative Fuels

by Mallika Naguran

Singapore 22 January 2009. Two new policies have to be in place in tackling the escalating demand for energy, said Professor Ernest Moniz, MIT Energy Initiative Director and former US Undersecretary of Energy serving the Clinton Administration.

Towards technology pathways.

The first order policy is to cap carbon emissions and improve economic efficiencies of energy. The second order policy is to focus on transportation and electricity by developing new technologies. Moniz was speaking to a group of scientists, technologists, businessmen, MIT undergraduates and alumni at the start of a symposium on the Challenges and Opportunities in Energy: Perspectives from MIT.

Analysing data on how the different energy sources are used, Moniz observed that 70% of coal-fired energy typically goes to powering buildings, both residential and commercial. “Managing the built environment is thus critical,” he said. Petroleum, more than any other energy source, however, is being pumped to keep transportation on the move.

This scenario gets scary with escalating demand and “doubling of global energy use and tripling of electricity use by 2050” against dwindling supply of fossil fuels and slow-paced alternative energy sources. Coal, he figured, would double in its use in the world, however, technology will mitigate its carbon emissions due to increased carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities built alongside these plants.

The biggest energy guzzler appears to be Canada, consuming around 16,000 kWh per capita followed by the US at 12,000 kWh per capita annually, according to the UN Human Development Index. The study plotted 60 nations representing 90% of the world’s population. The index seems to reach a plateau when the average nation’s people consume about 4000 kWh per capita of electricity annually.

Singapore, a city state, consumes 8,000 kWh per capita per year - more than industrialised Japan and Europe.

Carbon dioxide and other polluting gases emitted due to the burning of fossil fuels lead to warming temperatures. Moniz spoke how half a degree Celsius of temperature increase is enough to cause “drastic consequences” let alone further rises due to unchecked energy consumption globally. He referred to the contraction of glacial ice due to global warming. In particular, the Himalayan ice melt that will eventually impact the Mekong River, with subsequent raised water levels leading to “huge implications”.

The solution, says the physicist, is to create energy efficiencies and directing them to areas that need it the most, for example in technologies that minimise carbon emissions. “We need more sophisticated means to tackle technology pathways,” he said. He highlighted that because of the problems of scale associated with global energy consumption, we need multiple technologies to be developed, "not just one or two".

The key technology pathways he ranks with his own “four-star Michelin” labels are: harnessing energy efficiencies, developing carbon-free electricity (solar, nuclear and coal backed by CCS facility for example) and creating alternative fuels for transportation (biofuels, hydrogen and clean electricity).

The MIT Energy Initiative or MITEY will support such technology pathways, he said. Its multidisciplinary researches focus on innovative technologies (how conventional energy is produced, distributed and consumed), transformational technologies (developing alternative energy sources including economic management), global systems (to meet energy and environmental challenges) and enabling tools.

Through the $1.7 million grants received through seed funding, MIT researchers are making breakthroughs with innovations such as the supervalent battery for higher energy density at lower cost (Donald Sadoway), solar thermoelectric generator for the developing world (Rajeev Ram), improving biofuel production by engineering yeast tolerance (Gregory Stephanopoulos) and 14 other research projects. To push adoption of these technologies, MITEY will also look into doing some "honest brokering", described Moniz, with energy stakeholders and industry.

MITEY was launched by President Susan Hockfield when she took office in September 2006 in the US. Addressing the audience in Singapore at the symposium, she remarked that while greenhouse gasses are a threat to society, with the world facing economic recession, the imperative to act should be even stronger requiring “technology invention to tackle economic drought.”

The symposium was organised by the MIT Club of Singapore as part of its 25th anniversary celebrations in conjunction with the Singapore MIT Alliance and Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Centre.

Photo by Mallika Naguran