Improving Today's Energy Systems

author: William H. Green Jr., Department of Chemical Engineering, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Mujid S. Kazimi, Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Ahmed F. Ghoniem, Department of Chemical Engineering, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Robert D. van der Hilst, Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Paul L. Joskow, Department of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Stephen Ansolabehere, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: April 19, 2013,   recorded: May 2006,   views: 60

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William Green frames this round-up of near-term pressing issues in energy research with a sobering observation: global demand for energy will increase 50% by 2025, because “most of the world wants to live like us.” The panel reports on five different domains of research to meet this demand, ranging over science, engineering, economics, and politics.

Nuclear energy is making a comeback, as the fastest growing energy source during the past 15 years. That’s because existing plants are operating better, says Mujid Kazimi, and because the regulatory process has become more predictable. But plenty of challenges remain: enhancing safety, by making nuclear plants less dependent on their operators; improving efficiency; disposing of waste, without the kind of political firestorm sparked by Yucca Mountain; and improving security, i.e., not proliferating weapons-grade materials.

In contrast, Robert van der Hilst calls hydrocarbons – oil and gas – the “black sheep” of the present-day energy family. Research is concentrating on making it less expensive to extract oil from existing fields, and more feasible to drill in new ones, including under the ocean. Solving these subsurface problems will depend increasingly on remote sensing, coupled with modeling and simulation. MIT projects using GPS satellites, robotics, and nanotechnology illustrate the essential collaboration of scientists and engineers.

Modeling and simulation, along with computer graphics to visualize results, are also the keys to making bold advances in exploiting the energy sources we already have. We may not like using coal and other low-quality fuels, Ahmed Ghoniem warns, but they are cheap and plentiful, and advanced conversion technologies will make them even harder to resist. The research challenges here are much faster computer hardware, supported by parallel processing software and immersive virtual reality displays. These devices, linked with interdisciplinary simulation techniques, will make it possible, for example, to predict both the fluid dynamics and aerodynamics of a giant wind turbine floating offshore.

The biggest change on the energy landscape since the 1990s, though, may be deregulation. Today, Paul Joskow claims, anyone can build a plant to generate electricity, and anyone can sell electricity to consumers. What is the impact of this industry restructuring on the theoretical function and practical performance of electricity markets? Joskow studies this and related issues, such as how to make remaining regulation more performance-oriented, and how “cap and trade” systems might satisfy environmental regulations.

Political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere uses polling to find out what energy sources the American public wants to develop. Support for nuclear energy, which plummeted after the accident at Three Mile Island, is now rising. The dilemma, however, is that people do not want to pay for clean energy: gas and electricity taxes, for example, are always politically unpopular. Ansolabehere is now investigating whether income or payroll tax decreases would make increased energy taxes more acceptable to voters.

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