The recent mideast war put the energy issue back in the spotlight, but so far there’s been no reprise of the 1970s energy crises. And David Marks, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, says responses from MIT’s research community aren’t like those of the 70s, either.
For one, replacing at-risk energy sources is no longer the over-riding goal. “There’s been a shift from the idea that �there’s no more oil; the sky is falling!’ to �Why are we using so much energy?’ And that’s driving a good deal of the research here,” says Marks, who heads the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment (LFEE).
He also says industry collaborations are growing. “In some ways,” notes Marks, “industry is getting out ahead of everybody else on this issue.”
And, too, studies of the energy issue’s social and economic aspects – why consumers use energy the way they do, and what energy conservation policies work best – are going hand-in-hand with technically oriented work. “Remember that the barriers between the scientists and technologists and the social scientists are incredibly low here,” Marks observes.
Some of the energy-related work in the social sciences, interestingly, could end up promoting energy-related goals as surely as a series of creative inventions.
For example, the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, closely affiliated with LFEE and staffed by economists, is probing new ways to cut the environmental costs of energy production and use. And several of the center’s researchers are focusing specifically on global climate change.
Price Tag On Pollution
The theory driving the group’s work is that the burning of fossil fuels, by boosting atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, is helping create a “greenhouse effect” that’s pushing average global temperatures higher. The researchers, who have probed market-based responses to other environmental problems, believe such approaches offer promise in confronting climate change, too.
How so? You’d basically put a price tag on a “right to pollute” – and you’d let polluters freely trade those rights among themselves. “The key to these kinds of initiatives,” says Denny Ellerman, the policy center’s executive director, “is that users don’t have to get anyone’s permission to buy and sell what we call allowances.”
How would it work? Think of a town that wants to cut its trash output. It limits pick-ups to two trashcans per household per week. A householder who wanted to dump more would have to buy the rights from a more abstemious neighbor. Those under the limit could sell a trashcan’s worth of capacity at whatever price the market would bear.
Though dealing with major air pollution problems is vastly more complex than cutting municipal trash flows, Ellerman says that carefully crafted market systems can nonetheless work very well.
His group has studied a U.S. market in emissions of sulfur dioxide – a key ingredient in acid rain – from coal-fired power plants. Emission levels from such plants are on a glide path from 16 million tons of sulphur dioxide a year in 1990 to a target level of about 9 million tons. And the reductions largely reflect a system that lets utilities buy and sell SO2 allowances, in the process surfacing the cheapest possible routes for reducing emissions. “What we found,” says Ellerman, “is that the best economies are achievable at big plants that burn high-sulfur coal, so they’re the ones that tend to make the major changes.”
If the SO2 experience is a guide, combating global warming by creating a market for carbons in fuels could be a far cheaper way to go than mandating cutbacks sourceby- source. With SO2 emissions, notes Ellerman, “we estimate that the market-based system cost 50 percent less than traditional regulation.”
Technical innovations, too, will be critical in dealing with climate-change and related issues. Among other things, that could renew interest in nuclear power, which produces no greenhouse gas emissions. Andrew Kadak, an MIT professor in nuclear engineering, is among those working on an advanced form of the system called the pebble-bed reactor, which has attractive safety and efficiency features compared to current-day plants.
Other MIT initiatives could help as well. The Fuel Cell Laboratory, headed by mechanical engineering professor Earnest Cravalho, wants to help make the fuel cell – in effect, a battery constantly replenished by fuel – a viable alternative to standard power sources. And Joel Clark, a professor of materials science, is exploring the use of advanced materials to cut the weight of vehicles without compromising safety.