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MIT researchers conclude fundamental changes in the US energy-innovation system are needed to meet challenges of climate change and energy supply

A three-year study by a team of researchers based at MIT has concluded that fundamental changes are needed in the US energy-innovation system. Without systematic, transformative changes, the US is unlikely to succeed either in averting the worst economic and environmental consequences of climate change or in achieving a secure, affordable and reliable energy supply.

The study has identified a suite of policy and investment strategies that could accelerate innovation in the United States, helping to meet growing energy needs affordably and reliably, reducing carbon emissions and alleviating insecurity over energy supplies.

The conclusions of that study are detailed in a new book—Unlocking Energy Innovation (MIT Press, 2012)—by Richard Lester, the Japan Steel Industry Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, and David Hart, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. The project was supported by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The study was carried out at the MIT Industrial Performance Center and involved faculty and students from nine MIT departments.

Neither the failure of global and US climate policy nor the emergence of other pressing issues changes the facts about climate and energy. Business as usual is unsustainable over the long run. The build-up of greenhouse bases in the atmosphere continues unabated, and its environmental and human costs are mounting. For each year of delay it will be necessary to “bend the curve” of carbon emissions that much more sharply if the worst consequences of climate change are to be averted.

Yet recent events also reveal and important truth that advocates of the need for a low-carbon energy transition must face. Broad public support for bold action does not exist in the United States. Until it does, no long-term, comprehensive national policy will be sustainable. The energy transition will require the exertion of public authority on a large scale, and it will touch the lives of almost everyone in a direct and tangible way. If the consent of the governed is granted only grudgingly or not at all, such a program will inevitably be hamstrung by resistance and will remain at constant risk of reversal.

The energy/climate debate of rent years has been dominated by the idea that the price of fossil fuels must be raised to reflect the full cost of their use. What is needed now is a different focus for the debate, one with the potential to build public support over time. Innovation should become that focus. A carbon price must surely be a part of any energy transition strategy. But the pain imposed by the stick of higher prices must be counter-balanced—in the public mind and in practice—by the carrot of better, safer and (ultimately) cheaper energy services made possible by new technologies, new business models, and new institutions.

—“Unlocking Energy Innovation”

Lester notes that innovation requires a productive ecosystem, including public and private research laboratories; small and large firms; financial intermediaries ranging from huge banks to individual “angel” investors; schools, community colleges and universities; and local, state and federal agencies.

We face a very big innovation challenge over the next few decades, bigger than most people recognize. And the system as a whole isn’t close to being up to the task.

—Richard Lester

Lester and Hart identify four stages through which an innovative technology becomes an established part of the energy infrastructure. Of those, the first stage—the discovery of new technological options—and the final stage—fine-tuning of technologies already in commercial use—are relatively well-managed, Lester says, though both will require more investment.

Innovation doesn’t just emerge out of thin air.
—Richard Lester

However, the two middle stages are less well-managed. These stages, spanning what is often referred to as “the valley of death,” include the development of prototypes to demonstrate viability in the marketplace and the initial implementation of the first full-scale systems by early adopters in the marketplace. These intermediate stages are costly and pose high investment risks, and a modest carbon price will do little to accelerate them.

Lester and Hart’s analysis of past advances reveals several steps that tend to foster energy innovation:

  • encouraging competition (and always leaving space for new market entrants);
  • making rigorous and timely selections of promising concepts; and
  • matching the scale of the system to the scale of the need.

The current system satisfies none of these.

—Richard Lester

Lester says that it is essential to pursue parallel innovation strategies aimed at different timescales:

  • changes over the next decade focused on efficiency improvements such as building insulation and gas mileage;
  • midrange efforts to reduce the costs and risks of known low-carbon energy-supply and electricity-storage technologies; and
  • from about 2050 on, a third wave of technological deployments drawing on fundamentally new developments in fields such as materials and catalysis.

All three waves of innovation must be pursued in parallel, immediately.

—Richard Lester

Since coal and natural gas represent about 70% of all electricity generation nationally, finding cost-effective ways of replacing those fuels and mitigating their emissions will be critical, the book says. One specific idea the team advocates is a regional approach to managing and financing the intermediate stages of innovation. Lester suggests that such a regionally based system, with decisions made by innovation users, would be more effective than the present system where decision making often rests with the federal government, a system that so far has proved only partly successful.

The federal government is structurally unable to play this role effectively, Lester suggests. The proposed approach would expand the scale of the energy-innovation system considerably, but reduce the federal role, he says.

Current difficulties in Washington only add to the case for regionalization. Implementation will probably have to happen from the bottom up, he says; “It will have to be an organic process.



This study is a patent infringment done with my differents buying bids that i done here since the last few years. They concluded the situation like i done my buying bids and have nothing to say more and they talk only generally instead of specifically about the products needed.

I said to begin commercialisation of hydrogen fuelcells for cars, motorcycles, trucks and machineries and airplanes and ships and electrical power plants. It's surrelly these products that they are talking about without specifying it because they don't want to admit that they had copied me for that study.

I said too to recirculate the co2 emissions from coal and nat gas power plants and do green algae fuel with it and recirculate this converted fuel right at the input for a net zero energy consumption power plant and they only suggested to adopt new technologies instead of specifying it. They done that because they lack good sense and they don't want to be fired out of their miserable jobs by their big oil boss. Big oil subsidised this study because they want to raise the price of conventionnal fuels again and again and brainwash the mass about difficulty for new technologies.

Nationnal energy policies, worldwide commercialisation of goods and services, technology changes, applied sciences, biosphere management are not done by conventionnal scientists and elected policy makers but are done in concerned blog spot by bloggers. No more conventionnal costly and inneficient subsidized endless studies done by zomby scientists. Just do what i said here now.


Innovation doesn’t just emerge out of thin air.

This is the point I have been making for years. It does not all happen in a garage someplace, it takes money and talent.


They are saying the political system has failed. Politicians are focused only on tearing down the opposing party and don't give a rat's a$$ on how much the American people suffer or destroying the economy. They are quite right about the requirement, “It will have to be an organic process."


There is a very obvious solution, which they specifically ignore for reasons beyond my understanding.

Liquid Flouride Thoroium Reactors are inherently safe, do not produce long term radio-active wastes, and run on cheap (as in free) and plentiful thorium. Theoretically, LFTRs should produce electricity cheaper than any other method including coal. See and

A few years ago, you could say researchers in the energy field might be ignorant of this fantastic opportunity, but now with exposure on Popular Science, and Wired you would have to be blind and deaf not to be aware of the incredible promise of the LFTR. An LFTR based reactor was built in the late 1960s at Oakridge National Laboratory and was run for 4 years, so the technology is proven. However this research was abandoned because it was no good for building nuclear weapons.


The naysayers will never believe it and will not support major efforts toward energy production and conservation innovations. They will continue to shout Dig Baby Dig and insist to pull more (clean?) shale gas and oil from under ground and (clean?) coal from coal mines and build more gas guzzlers and coal/NG power stations. And, they have enough $$$$ to buy enough votes to win. That's real governance by the people for the people.


Not much said in this article that isn't obvious. Washington is broken. Market can't solve these problems. "Regional concept" is something new, might have less deadlock, but no money.
Yes, to LFTRs.


All of this is the product of people insisting that they can have not only their own opinions, but their own facts. Facts make no difference in their positions.

We could have had LFTRs in the 1970's, and we'd be wondering what might have happened if we'd continued with coal. But the false assertions of the WASH-1222 report were taken as fact, then the IFR was torpedoed by ideologues (still in Congress), and the quiver was empty.


One could have a look at what is happening in Congress for the last few months to learn how to do it right?


Changing from a ME to a WE mentality could help. All this obsession with private profit over country and people has taken us off course.


I see big risk if someone with power will start wasting money and resources on absolutely useless technology like Fuel Cell and 'Hydrogen Eonomy'. It would be worse and more damaging for enviroment than 'do nothing' approach.


Oh I don't know about that Darius. FCVs do have a place in our future - they could have covered the 2% of the trips I've made last year that a BEV doesn't have the range for. ;^)


Buses and trucks could use them.


Yeah, for as long as we continue to use buses & trucks. In America the default answer to transport is the highway/road system but there are places in this world where rail is used to greater effect. And while the tracks can't go everywhere they don't have to, as long as they shorten the distance to the point where BEVs can take over.

Instead of buses we can use streetcars, and a streetcar system can also be used to move freight;
or small deliveries;
And it can collect garbage;


We are going to need the right combination of solutions, no ONE method is best in ALL cases. Light rail has its place and so do natural gas and fuel cell buses. Hybrids and EREVs have their place and so do synthetic fuels. Natural gas for trucks and buses with DME for long haul have their place in the mix.


What we could do is start thinking outside the status quo and stop arguing about the best way to travel down roads. Maybe the future lies in something we haven't tried before;


A higher probability of success may be going with what we have and building on it. Saying scrap everything and start over goes down a lower probability of success due to sunk investments.


I think FC will have place in overal energy usage, but not hydrogen. FC based natural gas backup power generators or even (in some cases) base load generators with heat oftake could be economicaly viable. Alcohol (metanol or ethanol)based fuel cells could be used for transportation purposes in case dramatic FC price decrease and realiability increase. But NOT HYDROGEN .


NECAR from Daimler showed that methanol can be reformed on vehicle to run a PEM fuel cell in a small car. There is no reason that this can not be extended to larger cars, trucks and buses as soon as the cost of the fuel cell comes down and the reliability goes up.


I'm not saying "scrap everything and start over." I'm saying start fresh with a new system that will compete with the old. If it is better it will take more and more load off the other The "other" will find a niche to sustain it. We are going to need the right combination of solutions, no ONE method is best in ALL cases.


The nuclear industry players in the United States did not want the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors to disrupt their Uranium refueling business. GE and Westinghouse has discouraged the federal officials from pursuing this line of research. This is not much different than Big Oil and the motor companies trying to kill the electric car.

The most certain way to develop LFTR is a centralized effort, and this is exactly the opposite of what these guys wrote.


Resources are finite, when you build light rail for 5 miles, you can not afford to add lanes to a freeway for 10 miles. Light rail replaces buses and most people do not ride it, nor do they want to ride it. Telling them that they "should" is just preaching.


Actually people (and the economy) respond well to LRT. Where it's put in, trains quickly fill to capacity.

My city's "SkyTrain network carries a weekday average of 406,300 riders as of the second quarter of 2011. The SkyTrain network carried a total of 117.4 million passengers in 2010, including 38,447,725 on the Canada Line and 78,965,214 on the interlined Expo and Millennium Lines. The Canada Line carried an average of 110,000 passengers per weekday in early 2011, and is three years ahead of ridership forecasts." And that's on only 42.7 miles of track!

And as for the resources: They may not have enough to meet the goals now, but they could. We set a goal to go to the moon and did it, few thought that it could actually be done.


I think very promissing competitor to the LRT (rathe heavy than light) could be realy light smart PRT systems. In cobination with umderground and heavy rail systems it could be ultimate public transit solution.



The way to think about LRT, or any public system, is not as something that YOU should ride, but rather as something that 'others' should ride.
It keeps them off 'your' freeway, and other roads so traffic congestion is lessened.
And, god forbid, someday your car won't start, there is an alternative means of travel.
There are plenty of people who cannot afford a car, insurance, gas, etc. They are the ones who mainly ride LRT.


Yeah, I agree. That youtube I linked to;
is a PRT.

The SkyTrain network didn't carry a total of 117.4 million passengers in 2010 because there are that many people in Vancouver who cannot afford a car.

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