Clean Energy

Seize the Opportunity Now

Only 12 months ago oil was racing past $100 a barrel, and it seemed like our nation’s ability to address our energy future would become the defining issue for our times. It might be tempting to dismiss talk of our energy challenge as just another fad born out of those crazy subprime mortgage days. After all, gasoline prices have come down, and how can we worry too much about the environment when millions of Americans have just lost their jobs? Nonetheless, there are three key reasons why energy remains an urgent issue and critical to our future.

First, the fundamentals that drove the price of oil and gas to stratospheric highs are not going away. These fossil fuels are finite resources, our ability to extract them cheaply is diminishing, and their costs will again increase as global markets recover and as the developing world surges ahead in population and economic growth. The cost of a barrel of oil is already up 20% from its December 2008 low.

Second, our demand for foreign oil and the related foreign policy decisions we make to ensure supply from abroad have greatly diminished our leadership position in the global political economy. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the US imports 58% of its petroleum needs. The top three global oil exporters are Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran; and 56% of global oil reserves are in the Middle East. If we want to restore both economic and geopolitical strength to the US, we need to increase our self-reliance. Our greatest obstacle to doing so is our dependence on foreign oil.

Third, the environmental cost of burning fossil fuels is increasingly hard to ignore, and policy changes acknowledging this are gaining momentum. Evidence for climate change is so compelling that even oil company executives have acknowledged it as a critical problem.

Consider the words of the US Climate Action Partnership, a group that includes the petroleum giants ConocoPhillips and Shell. In their 2008 “Call to Action” they announced, “We need a mandatory, flexible climate program … The most efficient and powerful way to stimulate private investment in research, development, and deployment is to adopt policies establishing a market value for GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions over the long-term.”

President Obama has promised legislation to reflect the GHG cost of fossil fuels and $150 billion to speed development of alternatives. It is therefore reasonable to expect that our energy policies will be changing quite soon, bringing an entirely new set of incentives to the energy marketplace. These realities represent a huge opportunity to begin reshaping the world’s $6 trillion per year energy industry through technology and innovation.

These opportunities are evident in companies like EnerNOC, which has grown from a student business plan competition winner to a $250m business in just six years, and Co2Stats.com, a service started by two students through a program designed for first-time entrepreneurs. EnerNOC enables utilities to avoid building excess power plants by coordinating decreased electricity demand by large users during peak hours. Co2Stats has registered 5,000 sites in the last sixteen months to track the carbon footprint of their web presence. Could the next clean energy success story be yours?

Awareness is just a mindset. You can contribute to the clean energy movement by getting involved in your university’s energy community — and if none exists, you can create one. You can also seize the opportunity by building a team and competing for the MIT Clean Energy Prize (www.mitcep.com), sponsored by NSTAR and the US Department of Energy. This business plan competition, open to student teams from all US universities, is designed to develop a new generation of energy entrepreneurs; it offers $500,000 in prizes and is partnered with the MIT $100K Competition. The deadline is February 26th.

Every community in the US depends on energy and the solutions to our energy challenge will not come from any one policy, university, or company. What will be your contribution?

Marcio von Muhlen is a graduate student in the Biological Engineering Department at MIT. He is also co-director of the MIT Clean Energy Prize.