In the coming decades, global energy demand is expected to rise dramatically, nearly doubling in the first half of this century, primarily in response to the growing global population and increasing standards of living. At the same time, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the global energy system must be drastically reduced in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Addressing this dual challenge requires simultaneous action on multiple technology and policy fronts—and a broad, sustained collaboration across the entire stakeholder spectrum including academia, industry, government, and the philanthropic and NGO communities.
Recognizing this, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) has developed the Low-Carbon Energy Centers, which employ a uniquely inclusive model for partnerships across sectors to develop deployable solutions that can move the needle on meeting future energy needs while simultaneously addressing climate change. Each Center aims to advance research on solutions in a specific technology area: solar energy; energy storage; materials for energy and extreme environments; carbon capture, utilization, and storage; and nuclear fission—with additional Centers for nuclear fusion, energy bioscience, and the electric grid to be developed in the future. The purpose of the Centers is:
To convene and facilitate close collaboration among Center members: a diverse set of global businesses, government entities, and organizations that are united by a common desire to advance a particular low-carbon energy technology pathway.
To promote and amplify collaboration among MIT researchers from a variety of disciplines whose work has applications within that low-carbon energy area.
To bring Center members’ market and policy knowledge to bear on laboratory-developed concepts and technologies.
To synthesize this knowledge gained within each Center through ongoing dialogue between researchers and members.
To disseminate insights, findings, and recommendations to our members and to society, informing R&D directions as well as public policy debate and design efforts.
To speed the advancement of technologies and solutions in each low-carbon energy area—far more rapidly than any single entity involved could achieve individually.
The Centers were first announced in October 2015 as a core element of the Institute’s Plan for Action on Climate Change.
Over the last decade, the Institute, through MITEI, has worked hand-in-hand with a diverse group of stakeholders from industry, government and the philanthropic and NGO sectors to take on major energy and climate challenges. Our close collaborations with these partners have led to the development of unmatched faculty depth and breadth across critical disciplines. Approximately 30% of MIT’s faculty works with MITEI on energy and climate topics, and MITEI has facilitated more than $600 million in member contributions for energy-related research and education—much of which has been towards advancing the development and deployment of low-carbon energy technologies and increasing the efficiency of conventional energy technologies. Because of this, MIT is uniquely poised institutionally to grow major initiatives in these areas.
As a leader in forging international energy and climate research partnerships with other academic institutions, businesses, governments, and philanthropic organizations, MIT brings a much-needed global perspective to these challenges. Both absolute and relative growth in energy use and GHG emissions over the coming decades will be dominated by the developing world, and our ability to find solutions that work in their demanding circumstances—large demand growth and inability to pay high prices—is crucial.
The Low-Carbon Energy Centers will combine MIT’s proven consortium approach with tailored research programs with MIT faculty for Center members. On campus, these Centers will seek to concentrate and amplify the Institute’s innovative energy research, with the aim of promoting interdisciplinary collaboration and inspiring new research directions—for the benefit of society. Across all of the Centers, we will bring faculty and students together to work under an efficient shared administrative umbrella.
In our engagements with industry and government, we have learned that one of the greatest inhibitors of moving research forward is uncertainty. This is as true for our faculty and students as it is for our industrial partners. To address and mitigate this uncertainty, each Center will have a dedicated research team focused on monitoring, tracking, and reporting on the evolving performance and economic potential of emerging technologies, and this resource will help provide guidance and definition to the opportunity space that each Center will be exploring.
Two faculty co-directors will lead each Center. They will be supported by a Faculty Steering Committee and a dedicated Advisory Committee that is comprised of a representative from each of the Center members along with the faculty steering committee. With input from these committees, the directors will set the major research themes, and build up a portfolio of multiple and joint member projects—spanning enabling science and engineering—and commission focused policy and technology reviews in areas of new or growing interest. In all cases, MIT’s standard Intellectual Property rules will apply.
In order to attract broad participation for the new Low-Carbon Energy Centers, MITEI is creating a membership structure that removes many of the funding and structural barriers that exist today. The Low-Carbon Energy Centers will enable smaller private and public stakeholders institutions to participate in these efforts—along with larger companies and government agencies—to work alongside MITEI’s existing members. Our goal is to open our doors to new “entrants” to MIT’s innovation ecosystem who bring with them new perspectives and ideas that can boost these efforts. In keeping with the scale and urgency of the challenge before us, our initial goal is to bring $8 to 10 million of new support into each Center. Our experience has been that this initial funding will build on itself, in the form of follow-on work or as part of larger, integrated programs involving multiple members.
At maturity, each Center will have between 15 to 20 members. There is an annual minimum commitment of $400,000 per member with an initial three-year term.
A portion of the commitment ($150,000) will be used to support the shared activities described above (Ongoing Technology Tracking and Assessment; Research Workshops; Quarterly Policy/New Technology Webinars; and interactions with faculty, postdocs, and students). This portion will also provide seed funding for new ideas and projects; and equipment purchases that will benefit all the members. The MITEI team will continue to raise research support from government programs to amplify this industrial funding, leveraging the investment from all our member companies, when appropriate.
The balance of the commitment (minimum of $250,000) will be used on sponsored research projects that are specific to the member or done jointly with other members. Because research activity is at the heart of our mission, this sponsored research portion will ensure that we only attract companies who are committed to research. Our hope is that many companies develop robust research portfolios that far exceed this threshold and that companies join forces to pool their resources to fund collaborative, multidisciplinary projects with our investigators.
Members will also be able to support pilot programs and other in-field deployments of technology.
A primary goal of the Center is to promote research through in-depth interactions between industry and academia and to significantly shorten the development and implementation timeframe for research programs. To facilitate this, the Center will undertake a series of activities whose aim is to illuminate how a specific technology area is evolving so that the member companies and MIT investigators can better decide where to apply their research efforts.
Together with the faculty directors and MITEI leadership, a personalized research development plan is created for each member. This begins with an onboarding call that is focused on identifying key research interests and facilitated engagement with faculty teams. Once annually, we will review the member’s evolving strategic objectives and research interests.
Conducted on the MIT campus, these workshops will feature presentations from MIT principal investigators on research areas identified by the faculty and member companies. An area of emphasis at these Workshops will be to identify a set of topics that lend themselves to joint funding amongst two or more members. The objective of these workshops is to significantly shorten the development time it takes to produce a scope of work and to move forward with a project. We also plan to hold quarterly webinars that focus on how policy and regulation might impact the competitive landscape for new technologies or on new technology assessments.
A portion of the annual fees will be given to the Center Directors to fund early-stage seed projects and to commission white papers in areas of interest to the membership. These funding decisions will be made solely by MIT, but the results of the work will be shared first with the Center members. Members will also be requested, where appropriate, to frame the key business challenges, specific areas of need, and provide input into calls for proposals.
A dedicated research team will monitor, assess, and report on technology, economic, and policy developments in the field.
Each member company will have one seat on the Center Advisory Committee, which will be chaired by the Faculty Directors and will also include participating faculty and MITEI senior leadership. The Advisory Committee will provide the Center directors with guidance on research directions and priorities.
All Low-Carbon Energy Center members will be invited to participate in these invitation-only MITEI events.
The first five Low-Carbon Energy Centers will focus on Solar; Storage; Materials for Energy and Extreme Environments; Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage; and Advanced Nuclear Systems. Each represents a critical part of a low-carbon future; and each will benefit from closer collaboration with industry. In order to ensure that we take advantage of the obvious adjacencies between the individual Centers, members of one Center will be allowed to sit in on designated portions of the Semi-annual Research Development Workshops conducted by the other Centers.