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MIT Reveals Initiatives at Energy Forum

By Angeline Wang
ASSOCIATE NEWS EDITOR


Hundreds packed into Kresge Auditorium Wednesday for MIT’s widely publicized Energy Forum and the unveiling of the Energy Research Council’s report on how MIT should proceed to address the global energy challenge. The release of the report marked the end of the information-gathering phase of the Energy Initiative, President Susan Hockfield’s first major action as MIT president.

Hockfield is currently reviewing the 57-page report, which she described in her opening remarks Wednesday as “the culmination of a year’s work” by the Council, in order to decide which recommendations the Institute will act on.

She also announced the beginning of a commentary period, in which the “community can add in their views.” The report is available online at http://web.mit.edu/erc/docs/erc-report-060502.pdf. Hockfield hopes to have the second phase of the Initiative framed for the beginning of the academic year in September, she said during a media briefing. The report was originally scheduled to be completed in February.

The Energy Forum included faculty panel discussions on research directives and a student-sponsored poster presentation, as well as an overview of the report given by Council Co-chair Ernest J. Moniz.

Both Hockfield and Moniz addressed the three questions, “Why energy? Why MIT? Why now?” as well as the challenges the Initiative will tackle, which the report outlines.

“MIT cannot do it all,” Moniz said. “But we do believe that we have the chance to make a significant difference, stimulate and mediate discussion.”

Moniz, looking at the historical perspective, described a 50-year time scale as the characteristic period for major changes in the energy industry. “Fifty years means starting today.”

He emphasized the need for both technological and policy changes from the federal government. According to Moniz, MIT can be seen as an “honest broker” between industry and government. Hockfield, who said that she is in Washington one day each month, plans to advocate for policy changes when the Energy Initiative takes form.

“We intend to provide the leadership that this critical issue demands,” Hockfield said during the Forum’s opening remarks.

The Council, consisting of 16 faculty members from the five MIT schools, was created after Hockfield’s inaugural address last May. It was charged with creating recommendations for the Energy Initiative.

In the fall of 2005, the Council solicited input from faculty and students, asking for white papers detailing possible research directions the Initiative could take. A campus-wide survey was conducted by the MIT Energy Club, and MIT received input from industry in a December workshop.

Although industry was not highlighted specifically during the Forum, industry leaders have shown considerable interest, Moniz said.

The authors of the report write that “a major multidisciplinary, multi-faculty, multi-year research program will typically call for sustained support in the one to several million dollars per year range.” Hockfield said this funding will likely come from government, industry, and private philanthropy. The report did not address the hiring of new faculty, which Moniz said was the “key element of the Council’s charge” last summer.

The report, which focuses on Institute research and education but also touches on campus energy management, calls for the formation of a new organizational structure called the MIT Energy Council (MITEC) that would work toward creating a permanent energy center with research space within the next five years. The MITEC would be “steer the initiative” and guide various subgroups, including the Laboratory of Energy and the Environment, which currently organizes research and educational activities around campus.

One other such subgroup, the Energy Education Task Force, would be in charge of coordinating MIT educational initiatives. Its first priority would be to create an energy minor for undergraduates.

“Many of the most important technologists of tomorrow will be educated here,” Hockfield said.

In January, the Council helped set up the EnergyClasses Web site (http://energyclasses.mit.edu/) to highlight graduate and undergraduate classes with a significant focus on energy.

The MITEC, as proposed in the report, would also oversee a campus energy management task force, which will improve campus energy efficiency, beginning with “a comprehensive assessment of the trade-offs, benefits and costs of different approaches to reducing campus energy use,” the report states.

Moniz described a “phased approach” to research thrusts, in which MIT would focus on research it already does well, such as solar power, nuclear power systems, electro-chemical storage, and biofuels. At the same time, MIT would be slowly “seeding” new technologies and directions. He envisions “the research agenda to build up in about five years.”

Videos of the Energy Forum events are available at http://mitworld.mit.edu/series/91/.