Dr. Steven Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, gave a talk on November 30, 2011 at MIT on how the U.S. can lead in the clean energy race. In addition to discussing several new technologies in renewable energy and energy efficiency that will have great impacts in the coming decades, he challenged MIT students to come up with solutions to barriers to energy efficiency as part of President Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative.
First up, Secretary Chu discussed several technologies of the past century that have drastically changed the way we live. The development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in the early 20th century and crop improvements during the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s have so far enabled global food production to keep pace with the expanding population and averted a Malthusian crisis. The evolution from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits (popular computer processors in 2011 boast in the range of a billion transistors each) has led to a spectacular explosion of consumer electronics that has revolutionized the way we communicate and consume information. Assembly line manufacturing and the relatively rapid adoption of the automobile in the early 20th century changed the face of our cities and solved one pollution problem (mountains of horse excrement) while introducing others (smog, lead, and greenhouse gas emissions).
Against this backdrop, Dr. Chu discussed a number of promising advances that could play major roles in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. He
focused on advances in materials science, such as the carbon fiber reinforced plastic used in the body of the Boeing 787, the introduction of high tensile strength steel in automobiles, substitutes being developed for rare earth metals used in electronics, more efficient and lower cost solar cells, and next-generation battery technology that shows promise of drastically reducing the cost of energy storage.
Dr. Chu also spoke about the DOE’s Sunshot Initiative, which aimsto have cost-competitive solar power by 2020. Due mostly to large scale manufacturing in China, the price of solar photovoltaic panels has plummeted in recent years, outpacing even optimistic estimates. While this has been bad news for certain US companies trying to compete in the market, it has had the advantage of pushing solar ever closer to the magical break-even point where it becomes competitive with fossil fuels. To help people get past the up-front cost of solar installation, companies such as Simply Solar of Arizona offer programs that allow homeowners to lease solar cells for 20 years with a low initial down payment and fixed monthly payments thereafter. For those who are interested, Sun Run offers a similar program here in Massachusetts.
While I found Dr. Chu’s talk to be informative and enjoyable (if a bit technical in parts), I was hoping he would spend more time addressing the policy and business aspects of winning the clean energy race. As Dr. Chu himself noted, the mass production of solar panels in China has made the competitive environment difficult for US firms. Renewable energy policy in this country has largely been left to state and local governments with little leadership from the federal government. I had hoped that Dr. Chu would spend more time discussing the Obama Administration’s roadmap for clean energy over the next 20 to 30 years and the policy steps they are taking to make that happen. Nevertheless, Dr. Chu is an extremely engaging speaker, and the technologies he discussed were exciting.
A video of the talk is available here.
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With the recent high-profile bankruptcies of Solyndra, Evergreen Solar and Beacon Power, many are wondering about the future of renewable energy in the United States. Dr. Steven Chu, current U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel Prize winner in physics, will be giving a talk at 12:00pm on Wednesday, November 30 at the Kresge Auditorium at MIT on “Winning the Clean Energy Race.” If you are interested in hearing Dr. Chu speak, you can sign up to attend the lecture here. It is expected to fill up, so those who are interested should sign up as soon as possible.
Dr. Chu’s family came to the U.S. from China in the 1940s, when his father and mother both studied at MIT. Dr. Chu received his B.S in Physics from the University of Rochester and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. He was the co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics “for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.” The former Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Dr. Chu was confirmed as Secretary of Energy in 2009 where he is currently responsible for helping to implement President Obama’s climate and energy agenda.
Among other professional organizations, Dr. Chu is a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Given the recent concern about China’s dominance of the renewable energy sector and uncertainty about the ability of American firms to compete, I will be interested to hear Dr. Chu’s perspective on the situation.
Stay tuned for a follow up after the lecture where I will recap the main points of Dr. Chu’s speech and give my impressions.
I hope to see you there.
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Like many other cities and states, Boston is focusing job creation and training efforts on green industry. First, Green Jobs Boston seeks to coordinate government sponsored green training programs with its efforts to create green jobs. For instance, it seeks to align efficiency and weatherization training with Renew Boston, the city’s energy efficiency retrofit program. Also, in developing Boston’s Innovation District, the city hopes to attract more green business. As mentioned in BRA post Oasys Water Lands in Innovation District, the district is already home to several cleantech businesses including Oasys Water, Next Step Living, and FastCap Systems.
As Boston continues to work to build its green industry, Massachusetts just learned it will lose the Evergreen Solar manufacturing plant in Devens. Evergreen Solar is a developer and manufacturer of PV modules and solar cells and also has plants in Midland, MI and a new plant in Wuhan, China, where the company sent its Massachusetts panel assembly operation in 2010. In this month’s announcement, Evergreen solar reported that the Deven’s plant will close because of continued downward pressure on price, increasingly competitive Chinese solar products (due partially to generous Chinese subsidies), and a believed “disadvantaged” American climate for manufacturing. This announcement comes after a November report that the company’s “net loss for the third quarter of 2010 was $27.2 million. . . .” Also, just weeks ago, the company instituted a 1-for-6 reverse stock split that reduced the company’s shares from 209 million to approximately 35 million. Despite receiving $58 million in subsidies from Massachusetts to build the Deven’s plant, Evergreen Solar was unable to thrive in Massachusetts.
The up and down experience with solar manufacturing in Massachusetts is not an unusual story. For Austin, Texas, the story recently moved in the opposite direction. Despite considerable effort to attract solar manufacturers, Austin only seemed able to lose them. In 2009, New Mexico lured Solar Array from Austin with deep subsidies. Also, Austin lost wind farm developer Renewable Energy Systems to Colorado, where the company is developing a large wind farm. But things are looking up now. In December 2010, Sun Power, a manufacturer of solar cells, panels, and systems, announced the expansion of its corporate operations into Austin, which will create 450 jobs over the next four years. To undertake the expansion, the company received $2.5 millions dollars from the state of Texas and a $900,000 grant from Austin. This is considerably less than the $58 million Massachusetts invested in Evergreen. In addition to Sun Power, Austin has been home to the thin film solar module manufacturer HelioVolt since 2001. Time will tell if the solar sector takes hold in Austin.
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