Switzerland came to the Boston area a week or so ago. There was a conversation with one of the political leaders of the country, Doris Leuthard, Councillor of the Swiss Federal Department of Environment, Transport, Energy, and Communications, at MIT on “Future Energy Supply and Security in Switzerland” and the next day a seminar on Watt d’Or, the Swiss award for the best energy projects in the country (http://www.bfe.admin.ch/org/00483/00638/?lang=en), at Northeastern University to celebrate the opening of an exhibit that will stay up at Northeastern’s International Village until September.
I attended both events and learned quite a few exciting ideas from the Swiss and, inadvertently, something more about the limitations of MIT’s view of the energy future.
Councillor Leuthard was introduced at MIT by the former President of the Institution, Susan Hockfield. Under Hockfield, by training a neuroscientist, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI for short, pronounced “mighty” just so you catch the drift) began. You can learn more about MITEI at http://mitei.mit.edu/ A look at the members page will give you a good idea of their slant on the energy world.
During her introduction, Susan Hockfield said she wasn’t sure how the world could produce the energy it needs without nuclear power, a rather gratuitous comment especially since Switzerland has a policy of slowly but surely phasing out its existing nuclear power plants and Councillor Leuthard talked clearly about the Swiss plans to provide safe and secure energy supplies expressly without nukes while still reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas production. As she said, “When you live in an alpine region, you don’t doubt the reality of climate change.”
The next day, at the all day seminar on Watt d’Or, Anton Gunzinger of Supercomputing Systems AG and ETH Zurich, the Swiss equivalent of MIT, gave a short talk about his work on energy modeling. He has developed modeling systems which show how Switzerland can produce nearly all of its energy from renewable sources, without nuclear power, and how the USA can do the same thing, although probably not quite to the extent that Switzerland can. It was extremely useful as I could pass on this work to a friend who has been studying the Danish energy modeling systems and the German energy modeling systems which also show that their energy needs can be reliably met with renewables. (pdf and German alert: http://www.scs.ch/fileadmin/images/tg/energie.pdf)
After lunch, Robert Armstrong, the current head of MITEI, (Armstrong took over after Ernest Moniz became Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration), spoke and said he, too, didn’t know how we can get the energy we need without nuclear power, a moment of cognitive dissonance for me since I could still remember Gunzinger’s talk an hour or so earlier. Armstrong announced that MITEI will be releasing their next report, on the future of solar energy, soon.
MITEI’s previous reports have been on The Future of the Electric Grid, The Future of Natural Gas, The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, The Future of Nuclear Power, Update to the 2003 Future of Nuclear Report, Fueling our Transportation Future, The Policies Needed to Reduce U.S. Petroleum Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, The Future of Coal, and The Future of Geothermal Energy.
When MITEI began, a source told me it was looking only at fossil fuels and nuclear power. My observation since then was only when student groups like the Sustainability Club and Energy Club became the largest student clubs on campus that any concerted attention began to be paid to energy efficiency and renewables.
I’d say the student groups still have a lot of pushing to do to get MIT and MITEI headed in the renewable direction and away from the habit of knee-jerk genuflection to nuclear power. After all, there’s a reason there’s a little tune that goes “M-I-T P-H-D M-O-N-E-Y.”