Big meets small” at annual MIT Energy Conference

MIT News
March 8, 2016

David L. Chan­dler | MIT News Office
March 8, 2016

Every­thing is tied to energy sys­tems,” said Kan­deh Yumkella, for­mer U.N. under­sec­re­tary gen­eral for sus­tain­able energy for all, in a keynote address Sat­ur­day at the annual MIT Energy Con­fer­ence. For the esti­mated bil­lion and a half peo­ple world­wide who lack access to reli­able elec­tric­ity sup­plies, he said, gain­ing such access can be key to improv­ing edu­ca­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, air qual­ity, and eco­nomic progress.

We must make small and big work together,” he said, in devel­op­ing new energy dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tems for the places that lack them – echo­ing the theme of this year’s 11th annual con­fer­ence, Big Meets Small. “Unfor­tu­nately, for the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment, big is more attrac­tive,” he said. For exam­ple, mas­sive hydropower projects can be show­cases for a nation’s lead­ers to show dra­matic progress, but small-​​scale micro­grid projects may reach many more peo­ple much sooner.

Yumkella described his efforts over the last few years to make sure that access to energy was included in the lat­est set of Devel­op­ment Goals for alle­vi­at­ing poverty, which were adopted by the United Nations in Sept. 2015. While the UN’s ear­lier Mil­len­nium Devel­op­ment Goals had not even men­tioned energy, he said, the new list includes “afford­able and clean energy” as the sev­enth in its list of 17 goals. It calls for uni­ver­sal access to clean energy by 2030.

And, Yumkella stressed, energy sources must be not only clean and afford­able, but also sus­tain­able — a cri­te­rion he was also able to get included in the UN’s goals. And part of mak­ing energy devel­op­ment sus­tain­able, he said, was ensur­ing that it could be car­ried out in the form of profit-​​making busi­nesses, not just charities.

He pointed out that while half of the world’s new dis­cov­er­ies of oil and gas reserves are in Africa, most of that is being exported. Even the scale of direct waste is stag­ger­ing: The methane gas flared away use­lessly at oil wells in Nige­ria over the last 50 years, he pointed out, would have been enough to meet half of that country’s elec­tric­ity needs.

One of the most impor­tant needs — also stressed by many other speak­ers at the two-​​day con­fer­ence, which is the largest student-​​run energy con­fer­ence in the coun­try — is for afford­able and durable stor­age sys­tems. “With good stor­age sys­tems, peo­ple could pro­duce their own energy and store it,” Yumkella said, using inter­mit­tent sources includ­ing solar pan­els and windmills.

A panel dis­cus­sion on Sat­ur­day specif­i­cally addressed that issue, fea­tur­ing four speak­ers who are work­ing on every­thing from proof-​​of-​​concept research, to com­mer­cial­iza­tion, to financ­ing and deploy­ment. “I believe the biggest tech­ni­cal obsta­cle” to wide­spread deploy­ment of renew­able energy “is the inter­mit­tency,” said Michael Aziz, a pro­fes­sor of mate­ri­als and energy tech­nolo­gies at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity. “With stor­age, we have a fight­ing chance.” His team is explor­ing vari­a­tions on flow bat­ter­ies, a sys­tem where the battery’s elec­trodes are in the form of liq­uids that are pumped through dur­ing charg­ing or dis­charg­ing, allow­ing for vir­tu­ally unlim­ited stor­age capac­ity in tanks out­side the bat­tery itself. That’s impor­tant for stor­age for solar arrays, which may need to pro­vide backup dur­ing a series of over­cast days.

Flow bat­ter­ies are not a new idea, but most have relied on par­ti­cles of vana­dium, a rel­a­tively rare and expen­sive min­eral that could pre­clude wide­spread deploy­ment. Aziz has found some promis­ing organic com­pounds, made of cheap and abun­dant ele­ments, that can already match vanadium’s per­for­mance in early lab-​​scale tests, at “a frac­tion of the cost.” Fur­ther test­ing is needed to prove the material’s longevity and sta­bil­ity, he said.

Fik­ile Brushett, a pro­fes­sor of chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing at MIT, described a dif­fer­ent broad research pro­gram on flow bat­ter­ies, sim­i­lar in prin­ci­ple to those described by Aziz but explor­ing a wide range of pos­si­ble mate­ri­als that could be pumped through the bat­ter­ies in non-​​water-​​based solutions.

Kristin Brief, vice pres­i­dent of cor­po­rate devel­op­ment at Cambridge-​​based Ambri, described the progress of that company’s spin­off of tech­nol­ogy devel­oped at MIT by John F. Elliott Pro­fes­sor in Mate­ri­als Sci­ence and Engi­neer­ing Don­ald Sad­oway and his stu­dents. The com­pany has already secured more than $50 mil­lion in financ­ing from investors includ­ing Bill Gates and is in the process of test­ing its pro­to­types in real-​​world instal­la­tions. The tech­nol­ogy is totally unlike any pre­vi­ous com­mer­cial bat­tery sys­tem, she explained; its two elec­trodes and the elec­trolyte between them are all in liq­uid form, at high tem­per­a­tures, when the bat­tery is in oper­a­tion. This allows for a very long life­time of the oper­at­ing components.

As for deploy­ing stor­age sys­tems into the world at a sig­nif­i­cant scale, Kiran Kumaraswamy described projects that he has been imple­ment­ing as mar­ket devel­op­ment direc­tor for a com­pany called AES Energy Stor­age. Using lithium-​​ion bat­tery tech­nol­ogy that is avail­able now, the com­pany has been design­ing, financ­ing, and oper­at­ing grid-​​scale stor­age sys­tems in Chile and has oth­ers under­way in sev­eral other coun­tries. A key to work­ing with indus­tries to imple­ment such sys­tems is being able to pro­vide end-​​to-​​end man­age­ment of the whole process, he said.

Increas­ingly, such approaches are attract­ing the inter­est of investors. Nancy Pfund, founder and man­ag­ing direc­tor of ven­ture cap­i­tal firm DBL Part­ners, said that her fund has invested heav­ily over the last 13 years in renew­able energy projects, includ­ing stor­age sys­tems. The firm spe­cial­izes in invest­ments that pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cant social or envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fit, not just prof­its, and has invested more than $400 mil­lion so far in such ven­tures, work­ing closely with them to bring them to suc­cess­ful fruition.

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