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A Model for Tackling the Energy Challenge

Posted December 13, 2006 by

On July 20, 1969, the United States reached the moon, beating the decade’s-end goal set by President John F. Kennedy. Many saw the original timetable as too ambitious. Yet with the country committed to the mission, and with the mission accelerated by federal policies promoting the necessary technological advances, the US flag was planted in lunar soil sooner than even many optimists expected.

Winning the race to the moon was a technological triumph, to be sure, but its benefits reached deep into the nation’s psyche, inspiring a generation of children to believe that they could play a role in the nation’s most exciting ambition and providing fuel for the nation’s innovation economy.

Project Apollo surfaces repeatedly as a model for tackling the energy challenge. Given the urgency of the situation, achieving a secure energy future will, indeed, call for a similar commitment in funding, policies, and passion. The execution, though, will have to be different. More than a discrete undertaking with a single goal, the energy project will have to deliver a broad portfolio of solutions, playing out on timetables measured over a few years to several decades.

No single technology can meet current or projected energy demands. Humankind uses energy at the rate of 14 trillion watts. Supporting that much primary energy use would require about 10,000 large coal plants, at 500 megawatts of electricity each. To generate an equivalent amount of electricity with solar power, today’s deployment would need to be increased several thousand-fold.

Adding to the pressure for multiple approaches to this vast challenge, the time for initiating meaningful steps to curb climate-threatening carbon dioxide emissions is short. It will take a long time to change the energy mix appreciably. Yet we are probably only decades away, at best, from the point of no return on greenhouse gas concentrations.

The university research community has embraced these challenges, with many faculty and students invested in finding energy solutions. Superb work underway on many campuses today, from Berkeley and Stanford to MIT, from the University of Michigan to the University of Texas to Georgia Tech, encompasses an impressive range of new and evolving technologies. This past summer, two MIT undergraduates gathered a group of 50 co-competitors from the annual international solar car race to collaborate in designing and building alternative vehicles capable of 300 miles or more per gallon.

The tireless enthusiasm of students is one reason universities have the potential to play key roles in energy innovation. In addition, while integrating new technologies on a broad scale into an immense and mature sector of the economy will pose complex challenges, universities have expertise to share not only in technical fields, but also in economics, planning, architecture, political science, and management, among others.

Federal energy research funding that is sporadic, at best, is one reason university research has not realized the promise of the post-1970s energy crisis. Happily, this situation is changing. The Department of Energy has increasingly emphasized basic energy research in a range of areas—a welcome recognition that we have much yet to learn on the way to truly game-changing energy technologies.

To fully realize its potential, though, the university community must lower some internal barriers. The standard academic research model of a single investigator, or a small group of people, working on narrowly defined problems is important but, frankly, not sufficient in an energy context. We must develop organizational structures and incentives that encourage large multidisciplinary teams and, where relevant, permit true working partnerships with industry and government groups.

Project Apollo’s inspiration ultimately produced the scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and policy makers who have fueled this country’s innovation economy. Today, our nation hungers for a similar inspiration, one that will refocus the attention of our schoolchildren toward science, mathematics, and technology. In fact, our future economic success could depend on it.

Can we sustain a meaningful commitment through the course of a mission that is markedly more complex and multifaceted than the moon landing, and that will demand a smooth melding of policy making and technological developments? Can we build an energy innovation pipeline that will, once again, both inspire our children and fuel our economy?

Some are pessimistic. However, consider at least one argument for a more positive outlook. At universities, we have a sustainable source of optimism—our students. Make no mistake about it, they really do care. We should, too, by investing in a secure and clean energy future.
Susan Hockfield is president of MIT.