I am currently in Zurich (at ETH) for a summer research project, and my first two days here I had the privilege of attending a MIT-ETH symposium on energy futures in North American and Europe. Professors from both MIT and ETH were invited, along with a consortium of MIT undergrads and ETH masters students.
I have been to conferences before, but this was my first international conference featuring two powerhouse universities sharing and discussing ideas regarding the future of the energy landscape. Before we dive into the details of the symposium, we should consider the status quo of both countries.
America needs no introduction: as the above graphs from Google Trends show, we are among the leaders in energy use per capita and greenhouse gas emissions. (The interested reader can read this to understand why Canada is up there with the US).
One could guess that most of our energy demand comes from handheld electronics and residential appliances, but actually most of our demand comes from the transportation sector, surprisingly second only to the industrial sector. Here are some perhaps startling stats regarding the transportation field in the US: there are ~320 million people that live in the US that own 250 million cars. This is good for 25% of the world’s personal vehicles. This amounts to ~380 million gallons of oil consumed per day, which is 45% of the total oil consumption. And where does this oil come from? This handy infographic shows that 10.6% of our imports are unrefined crude, which we proceed to refine across the states (amounting to ~7.1% of our exports). We will discuss more about this situation later on; now it’s time to understand Switzerland’s energy landscape.
Switzerland has a more interesting energy scene. It’s important to first understand the geography of Switzerland; mainly, it’s only 1.5 times larger than the Dallas/Fort Worth city region. It’s a landlocked country in between European powerhouses France, Germany, and Italy, and for centuries has played its part as the neutral bystander in the midst of those countries’ warring tendencies. This cultural background will be more relevant to Switzerland’s energy policies and regulations shortly.
Being landlocked, there is one huge advantage that the Swiss are able to tap: the Alps. Nearly 60% of the country’s electricity supply comes from hydroelectrics, with another 35% from nuclear plants. And now as these nuclear plants are being decommissioned, more power will be routed from the hydroelectric plants. This also leads to another astonishing statistic: the CO2 emissions from electricity consumption are 7x as much as the emissions for electricity production! This is a consequence of the large investment in clean energy sources.
So the commercial use of electricity leads to the largest release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Most of this usage goes towards heating and transportation, perhaps unsurprisingly. In Zurich, what’s particularly surprising is the attention to detail with regards to environmental consciousness. As the picture below shows, there are multiple recycling streams (this one for brown glass) that residents are enforced to use (you pay a penalty if you don’t recycle properly). In addition, if you take a closer look, you will see that there are certain times of day that one can recycle! This typifies Swiss culture: organized, diverse, and very mild.
Energy in transportation
With a basic working understanding of the culture of both countries, in addition to their relative contributions to the global energy crisis, we can now turn to the proceedings of the MIT-ETH symposium. The first major topic of discussion was the transportation energy sector. As we discussed previously, one of the major issues in the US transportation industry is the sheer amount of personal vehicles that are owned, and the fuel inefficiency of these vehicles. But is the problem really with the technology, or the consumer?
Professor David Keith from MIT’s Sloan School of Management discussed this issue in his talk, and noted that while 3% of new car customers buy hybrid vehicles, 30% bought vehicles with autonomous features! Even when they had to pay extra money for these features, consumers tended to factor safety as part of their evaluation of a car’s costs, but not environmental safety. Another issue here is the government’s stance on vehicle regulations. For example, flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) are financially treated the same as the conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. With economic incentives, there should be no reason for consumers not to invest more heavily in these alternative vehicles; and that’s what Professor Keith pointed out. It’s the consumer choice at the end of the day that needs to be swayed and informed to make an appropriate decision considering the circumstances. GM has picked up on this, recently with their $500 million investment in Lyft and subsequent $1 billion purchase of autonomous company Cruise to make electric, autonomous, ride-sharing taxis. This is the trend for the automobile industry, as beautifully illustrated here.
In Switzerland, a similar trend is being discussed, albeit from a different angle. As previously introduced, Switzerland does not have a greenhouse gas problem when it comes to producing electricity. Its clean energy supply makes the idea of using electricity in cars an eco-friendly concept. In addition, a subtle difference between American and European vehicles is the length and weight of the car; American cars tend to be more square, longer, and thus heavier, whilst the European cars are round and tiny. This small difference in choice actually speaks volumes to the fuel efficiency of the car- which is one reason why passenger transportation in Switzerland is not a major issue. As Professor Konstantinos Boulouchos notes, the larger issue is with freight transportation. Switzerland has very nice systems to provide real time sensor readings from their transportation vehicles, such as CO pollution amongst others. The big question is: how can this data be properly utilized? Professor Boulouchos mentioned something that I believe resonates with Swiss beliefs: “Humans do things because they don’t have information.” The idea of a well-informed public making the right choices is a salient part of decision making.
The first topic of the symposium was the challenges of energy in transportation. This, of course, isn’t the entire picture- which is where addressing energy efficiency comes in. As you probably already know, everything in the world unfortunately doesn’t operate at 100% efficiency. Combustion reactions never achieve 100% conversion at operating system conditions, and even renewable energy sources never quite capture the starting energy of the starting resource, be it solar, wind, hydroelectric, amongst others. What can be done about this situation?
Professors Christoper Knittel from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Massimo Filippini from ETH addressed this topic for their respective countries. Professor Knittel, like Professor Keith, challenged the role of the consumer in making energy decisions. He presented the McKinsey Abatement Curve (shown below) that was a shocking way to realize the changes that could be made in society and their respective costs and CO2 emission reduction potential. What is found is that changes that can be done in the commercial/residential sphere are actually economically favorable, whilst the larger implementation of industrial clean energy conversion/carbon capture storage (CCS) plants are more expensive. This may seem obvious, but such a statement is very powerful; the commercial sphere can immediately make the greatest impact on the greenhouse emission sector by making some relatively simple changes in lifestyle and appliance use!
I’m afraid that I didn’t remember much from Professor Filippini’s talk, but his talk echoed the statements made by Professor Boulouchos regarding interpretation of large statistical data for the public. The interested reader can check out SCCER (as mentioned in the Professor’s talk) for details on other CO2 emission reduction options such as geothermal, CCS, amongst others.
The third section of the symposium was on energy storage. Thus far energy efficiency in the residential sphere and policy in the transportation sphere have been discussed. But perhaps the key to the future lies in energy storage? We can continue to push for renewable energy sources, but without ways to store generated energy, popular ideas such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric are simply not viable. One can consider that on any given day, there is high variability for energy demand from the consumer perspective. Just take a look at this energy demand curve from the EIA below- not only does large amounts of energy need to be discharged/stored, but it needs to be done in small periods of time with minimal ramp up time!
Hence arises the problem with energy storage. Current leading technology for use in the commercial sector is lithium-ion batteries, as noted by ETH professor Vanessa Wood. The reason for its continued dominance in industry is largely due to the high volumetric charge density of the batteries due to the intercolation of the Li+ ions into FePO4. In addition, the power stability/longevity of the battery is high as this battery is able to survive many charge/discharge cycles. A problem that still remains, however, is the aforementioned fast One can read more about the lithium ion market vs. other battery options here.
As Professor Wood explained, the Li-ion market in Switzerland is dominated by big industry players, making it difficult for small startups in alternative energy technologies to enter into the market. And this is important, because other technology is rapidly developing, as pointed out by Professor Sadoway!
Professor Sadoway’s talk was perhaps the most insightful and inspiring for me. He’s a Professor in the department of Materials Science at MIT, and he’s in that class of inventor geniuses. His startup, Ambri (taken from CAmbridge), is based on technology that incorporates high temperature liquid aluminum batteries with molten salts. The key is that it is all at a low cost with low energy leakage and 69% DC to DC energy efficiency. Professor Sadoway had a very blunt and direct manner of speaking at the conference that really made me think further about the energy problem. Here are some of his memorable statements:
“You know what’s worse than no electricity? Bad electricity.”
“If I want to invent something for energy storage, I forbid my students and researchers to work with rare earth metals.”
“If you want to make something dirt cheap, make it out of dirt.”
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”
For additional quotes, feel free to check out his TED talk (an awesome video, btw). The basic thinking here is that one can use cheap materials and some previously considered ‘useless’ ideas to create a successful idea in a niche field. It was previously thought that high temperature batteries were useless in conventional appliances/cars/etc. It was also thought that the antimony molt would be too heavy. While these statements are generally true, no one said anything about using them in grid storage applications. And Professor Sadoway and his team were able to make that connection to use a previously unheard-of idea to change the way things are done in a huge industry. I won’t get too much more into Ambri, but be sure to check out the company and what else it’s doing here!
So what can we make out of this conference? There was a LOT of information presented, and a lot to consider when establishing the ‘energy crisis.’ Some things that were really shocking were the systems thinking presented by the MIT professors when approaching/understanding a problem. In particular, Professor Sadoway’s analysis of a problem and his out of the box thinking is the way forward for young, intelligent, passionate inventors.
This article has discussed heavily on the American energy perspective, but there are many things to be learned from the Swiss system! They are incredibly efficient and energy initiatives are structured and supported by the government. As we’ve discussed, the government supports many clean energy initiatives and penalizes lack of environmental consciousness. Sure, Switzerland is in a physical location where a lot of these options are available in terms of clean energy and policy, but the government is still taking an active effort to encourage responsible behavior. The US government should certainly do the same, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the behavior of the consumer. There are economically viable alternative choices to be had, and they need to be taken. And from the perspective of researchers, in the future we should consider accessible and feasible energy alternatives. Expensive electrodes and efficient membranes perhaps shouldn’t be the future of focus, when considering that change needs to happen fast, and happen NOW.
I learned a lot from thinking about the consequences of this conference, and I hope you have too! It is dense material to get through, but then again, no one said solving the energy crisis was meant to be easy. Looking forward to your thoughts and ideas!