MIT’s annual Energy Conference, held last Friday and Saturday, featured an impressive array of young engineers, scientists, and renewable energy entrepreneurs. It also included a sizeable number of more established players in the energy field. And the question left hanging at the end of the conference was whether this group of inventors and dreamers could innovate fast enough, and create green energy cheaply enough, to prove wrong the forecasts of the establishment that the world is going to continue to burn fossil fuels for a long time to come.
The theme of the conference, held in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, was “Insight and Innovation in Uncertain Times.” While noting that venture capital funding for clean technology reached an all-time high of $4.3 billion in the U.S. last year, outgoing MIT president Susan Hockfield nevertheless laid out some of the challenges to alternative energy innovation. These include the economic slowdown and government cuts to green energy programs, the diminished prospects for adopting a climate policy in the U.S. and on a global level, and the boom in exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels, like shale gas.
Peter C. Evans, director of Global Strategy and Planning for General Electric’s GE Energy, said the company was forecasting that the contribution of fossil fuels to the global energy mix would only decline from 85 percent today to 80 percent in 2025, an estimate that is dismal news for those concerned about global warming. Richard H. Jones, deputy executive director of the International Energy Agency, said, “Regardless of whether we like it, we are going to remain dependent on fossil fuels for a long time.”
Clearly, many of the MIT students, alumni, faculty, and 30-something green business people who attended the conference did not like it, and they painted a different picture of the not-so-distant future. A three-hour discussion of solar power was dominated by glass-half-full entrepreneurs and experts, whose optimism was not dampened by the current glut in the solar market — and the collapse of numerous U.S. solar companies — because of Chinese overproduction.