MIT Energy Conference 2010

This weekend is the MIT Energy Conference. There are more interesting lectures than I can possibly attend, and that's even including skipping one of my favorite classes. (Sorry, professor von hippel.) I won't summarize every talk, but a few deserve mention:

The provocatively titled "Is green energy the next bubble?" panel talk provided some good fodder for thought. The consensus was that since the market for green energy is mostly provided by government policy, it is unlikely to overheat and bubble. But there was some good criticism of ethanol, which one panelist artfully described as a "bridge to nowhere." If incentives create powerful constituencies for other uneconomic policies, could we get into a similar bizzaroland? Another panelist, though, mounted an interesting defense of ethanol. Her argument was that the first generation food-based feedstocks created a market into which more-reasonable second-generation feedstocks (like cellulosic) could enter. I'm still not holding my breath.

The panel on electric vehicles asked a particularly incisive question: "If EVs are the solution, what is the problem?" Tellingly, the justifications were all over the place. One speaker mentioned "carbon", which is great (assuming you're not powered from a coal plant) but I don't see the incentive mechanism which will make drivers WANT an electric car. Another mentioned "energy security", which at least has a price mechanism (oil futures internalize uncertainty). The CEO of Fisker hit closer to the truth - driving enjoyment and ability to travel in emission-free european city hubs. Like all new technologies, EVs will continue to disappoint when compared to to internal combustion in the traditional metrics of range, weight, and cost. Without a price on carbon, the drivers which will bring us EVs will be noise, avoiding gas stations, acceleration, and other new metrics.

A few annoyances:
  • There were a disturbing number of speakers whose presentation consisted of reading numbers verbatim from a paper statement. Boring.
  • The panel discussion on solar had a strange format, with each speaker beginning with a long statement addressing the same 3 issues. I would have preferred that each speaker address a single question in series so as to promote more interplay of ideas.
This was a good conference, very well-run. Perhaps I'll help organize it next year.

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