Energy synergy: MIT ignites CERAWeek

Top government and business leaders meet each year in Houston to discuss the state of the energy industry at IHS Energy CERAWeek, hosted by the information and analytics company IHS Inc. Years ago, the buzz was all about fossil fuels. These days, though, renewables and divestment are lively topics as well. Into that heady atmosphere steps an MIT contingent bringing research news about emerging technologies — and leading discussions of stubborn issues.

Lou Carranza, associate director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and a former organizer of CERAWeek, first brought MITEI co-founder Ernie Moniz to the main stage in 2007. Now Moniz is U.S. secretary of energy and a regular speaker, while MIT had its own panel of experts on stage at the April conference. Moreover, Carranza arranged for more than 65 MIT alumni from the MIT Club of South Texas to attend the MIT panel for free.

Why did MITEI want to be there?

“CERAWeek started 35 years ago as an oil and gas conference, but now there is large part of the conference covering renewables and low-carbon energy, which is central to what MITEI focuses on at MIT,” says Carranza. “CERAWeek has become important to us as a way to reach the right audience — government and energy executives at the senior level.”

Moreover, the energy industry is intensely interested in science, technology, and engineering education as the pipeline for future innovation and employees.

“MIT is a big part of fixing that employee pipeline problem,” Carranza says. “Part of why MITEI exists is for people to self-assemble around their ideas in energy and to link their work to the challenges facing the energy industry. One way MITEI does this is through a first-year fellowship program. Over 300 students have come through that program since 2007.”

The MIT session (video), titled “Frontiers of Science and Innovation: What Game-Changing Technologies Are on the Energy Horizon,” was chaired by MITEI Director Bob Armstrong, the other MITEI co-founder. The faculty in that session included professors Sanjay Sarma, who addressed the Internet of things and the future of online learning; Dennis Whyte, who gave a talk entitled, “Nuclear Fusion: New Superconductors, 3-D Printing, and Molten Salt Blankets”; Krip Varanasi, who addressed surfaces, interfaces, and coatings; and Don Sadoway, who spoke on electrical chemical pathways to sustainability.

Who else played a role for MIT? This year the faculty included Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president of research, who spoke on fossil fuel divestment, and Institute Professor John Deutch ’61, PhD ’66, who spoke on securing energy infrastructure. MITEI leaders included Rob Stoner, deputy director, who spoke on African power, and Frank O’Sullivan ’04, director of research, who spoke on “Renewables in a World of Volatility.”

Media play a prominent role at the conference, Carranza says; more than 2,500 articles have been published in 67 countries about the event. In fact, CNBC was reporting live. The morning after Moniz’s keynote, he did a live interview with CNBC from the conference floor. Just like an energy star.

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