Meeting the growing energy needs of our technological age while addressing global climate change is a daunting undertaking. That’s why the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) continually draws together wide swaths of the Institute’s intellectual, organizational, and policy resources to take on the challenge.
“MITEI has a mission of bringing together science, innovation, and policy to transform the world’s energy systems,” says Robert C. Armstrong, MITEI director and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. “Our goal is to reach across campus to get as many different disciplines as appropriate to work together and tackle these complex problems.” MITEI works with almost 35% of the MIT faculty on its three major objectives: research, education, and public outreach.
Among its most visible projects is its series of “Future of…” studies, comprehensive multidisciplinary research reports that explore paths to meeting future energy demands under carbon dioxide emissions constraints. To date, MITEI has produced “Future of…” studies on energy sources such as solar, natural gas, coal, and geothermal, and on vital parts of the energy infrastructure, including the electric power grid and the nuclear fuel cycle.
The latest report is The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World. This title neatly sums up the study’s major point, which as study co-chair Jacopo Buongiorno PhD ’01, TEPCO Professor and associate head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, explains, is that “nuclear can and should play a big role in decarbonizing the power sector.”
The study points out that reaching this goal will require not just technical innovations, such as new reactor designs, but also updated policy and business models, regulations, and construction techniques.
Changing nuclear landscape
In some ways, the new study harkens back to The Future of Nuclear Power, a report released in 2003—even before MITEI was formally established in 2006 by MIT’s then-president Susan Hockfield, professor of neuroscience. However, Buongiorno says, “The landscape for energy and nuclear in particular has changed dramatically since 2003.”
Vast new natural gas resources have been tapped, and attention to climate change and the need for decarbonization have increased. The nuclear industry was hit hard by both the 2008 economic crisis and the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan.
Furthermore, emerging technologies continue to increase the value of nuclear energy in terms of decarbonization. Fourth-generation reactor designs are more efficient and more accident-tolerant; today’s small, modular reactors offer more flexibility and versatility than traditional large-scale nuclear plants. “If you sum these all up, we thought that it was a good time to take a fresh look at the prospects of nuclear,” says Buongiorno.
Buongiorno points out, “We looked not just at electricity, but at the other energy applications of nuclear systems, for example, heat for industry or production of synthetic fuels or hydrogen—essentially a way to penetrate markets that are not traditional for nuclear. Nuclear traditionally has been used for power. But the idea here is to go after also the massive carbon emissions that are outside the electricity sector.”
Such ideas capitalize on the fundamental function of a nuclear reactor: creating heat. Typically, plants create steam to turn turbines that generate electricity, but heat itself can also drive industrial processes—a concept made even more attractive by the higher operating temperatures available with advanced reactor designs. In addition to exploring new technology, however, Buongiorno and his colleagues also examined the policy and economic issues that have stalled the growth of nuclear power. Their analysis shows that trying to meet energy needs solely through renewable sources will raise the cost of decarbonization while slowing its progress. The study makes the case that, ultimately, nuclear is an important avenue to a low-carbon future.
MITEI’s “Future of…” reports have been well received, with impacts that reach beyond the expected audience of government policy makers and energy industry wonks. This latest effort has been no exception. The report was released in September 2018 to what Buongiorno calls “an overwhelming reaction—the amount of attention exceeded my wildest expectations.” Following the initial rollout of the study, Buongiorno and his colleagues embarked on what amounted to an “almost nonstop world tour” to present their findings—traveling from London, Paris, and Brussels to India, China, Japan, and Korea. The executive summary has been translated into six languages, and the entire report was translated into Chinese. Such a globetrotting presentation, gathering reaction and feedback from scientists and policy makers around the world, highlights another difference between this study and the 2003 report. “That study had focused primarily on the United States and North America, with implications for the rest of the world,” Armstrong says. “This most recent study has, by design, taken a global approach.”
Despite all the positive reaction to the latest MITEI effort, Buongiorno admits that there’s a difference between people paying attention and taking action. “It’s hard to assess whether this is going to have a real impact,” he observes. “Will people actually implement our recommendations or not? That remains to be seen.” However, some short-term impacts are already evident.
“We’ve been invited to states in the US to talk about the value of the existing nuclear fleet,” Buongiorno says, noting that the study provides useful information for decision makers charged with determining whether plants should be shut down or kept operating when their licenses expire.
Given the pattern set by previous MITEI efforts, it’s also a safe bet that its long-term influence will be significant. Armstrong cites the 2011 Future of Natural Gas study as an example. “I think that one was particularly impactful,” he says. “The report pointed out the likely possibilities that shale gas could remake the gas business in North America; it could revitalize the chemical industry by providing lowcost feedstocks; it could provide substantial new jobs in the natural gas sector; and it could potentially reshape the global gas business. We’ve actually seen that come to pass.
“We also pointed out that it had the potential at low cost, which we were projecting, to contribute significantly to meet the challenge of climate change. And that’s also come to pass.”
Unexpected and unconventional recommendations such as these are something of a hallmark of the “Future of… ” studies, many of which have inspired new ways of thinking about old questions.
John Parsons, an economist at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-chair of the nuclear study, points out that the new report, for example, contradicts the common belief that the main driver of cost for nuclear plants is the reactor itself and related systems. Actually, he explains, “The large cost of the power plant is in the civil engineering around the reactor, big civil structures, and in particular things like the containment building and the basemat, as well as the site preparation.” He adds, “We identified ways to reduce these costs.”
That sort of insight likely comes more naturally to an economist than a nuclear engineer—which is exactly why MITEI takes an interdisciplinary approach to energy research.
“In order to inform policy makers and thought leaders about the big challenges in meeting climate change and still providing more energy, we need to get all of those disciplines together,” Armstrong says.
Armstrong believes that such a multidisciplinary effort is particularly at home at MIT. “That’s part of the culture here, developed over many, many years. The faculty have a substantial trust and admiration for one another’s capabilities and are happy to work together on these kinds of joint projects. It’s hard to replicate that in other places,” he says.
MITEI’s work stands apart for other reasons too, according to Parsons. “There are three things. Number one is the attention to cutting-edge technological change. Number two is a lack of a bias toward one technology or another. Number three is a hard-nosed economic attitude. We’re not sunny optimists,” he says. The next “Future of… ” study is already well underway, focused on energy storage. “As we get more and more renewables in the electricity system, it becomes more apparent that there are substantial challenges from intermittency that are intrinsic to solar and wind,” Armstrong explains.
The newest project emerged in part as a result of the 2015 Future of Solar Energy study. Says Armstrong, “One of the major conclusion areas was that we needed to prepare for large penetration of solar by developing appropriate storage technology.” Following the successful pattern set by previous MITEI studies, the project brings specialists in different storage technologies together with experts in policy. The goal of the study, which Armstrong anticipates will take another two years, is to “help the public and policy makers understand what we need by way of storage technology to have a carbon-free world.”
Whatever the results, chances are good the next report will reflect the attitude common to all the “Future of…” studies. As Parsons describes it: “We’re sure there is some way to make the world better, but you really have to prove that you can do [something] with whatever technology and whatever economic paradigm you’re proposing.” It’s a combination of being both visionary and yet completely practical, he says.
Mark Wolverton is a 2016–17 MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow.