• President Susan Hockfield and Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts answer questions from press after an MIT clean energy policy forum on April 13.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change in the Obama administration, gives the keynote address at an MIT clean energy policy forum on April 13. 

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • John Holdren, '65, SM '66, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, addresses an MIT clean energy policy forum on April 13.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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At MIT forum, Markey announces energy bill hearings

Congressman says energy research could address jobs, climate and security

At a policy forum hosted by MIT on Monday, April 13, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) announced that he and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) will begin a series of high-level hearings next week in Washington to help refine the details of a clean energy bill they introduced two weeks ago.

The legislation, which was the focus of Monday's forum, aims to spur the development of clean energy and reduce global warming emissions by establishing national standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency, and by putting a cap on carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions.

"Our planet is sick, and there are no emergency rooms for sick planets," Markey said at the opening of the MIT event. He added that the hearings are due to begin next Tuesday, and three members of President Barack Obama's cabinet will be among the initial witnesses.

President Susan Hockfield, in introducing Markey at the event, noted that the new bill "frames the problem vividly and proposes the kind of comprehensive, large-scale, market-based answers that the situation demands." She added that it contains "powerful levers for change" that "we hope will support clean energy research, development and deployment."

Given that solving the intertwined issues of energy, climate change, security and economic growth represents what is "perhaps the greatest challenge of this century," Hockfield said MIT is an especially appropriate place to be launching such a discussion.

"At MIT, we like hard problems," she said. "We are ready and eager to help in the invention and implementation of solutions."

The event also featured remarks by John Holdren '65, SM '66, Obama's new director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and by Carol Browner, Obama's assistant forr energy and climate change. They were joined by bestselling author on energy issues Daniel Yergin, and by MIT Energy Initiative Director Ernest J. Moniz.

Holdren said that "the world is getting most of the energy it requires from sources that are wrecking the environment it requires." But he added that "the energy challenge we face is actually a more difficult one than putting a man on the moon was."

Already, he said, carbon dioxide emissions and concentrations, temperatures and sea level "are all rising at rates at or above those of the IPCC's 'high' scenarios," based on the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Disastrous results could occur sooner rather than later," he said.

While it is already too late to "stop climate change in its tracks," he said, measures to slow its progress and adapt to the now-unavoidable impacts are essential. "Some of these are win-win: things that would make sense to do even without climate change." These include improvements in energy efficiency in buildings and vehicles that would, over time, pay for themselves through the energy they would save.

To address these issues, the new energy bill contains provisions to promote energy efficiency in buildings, appliances, transportation and industry, Markey said. It will also provide funding for research in cutting-edge areas such as carbon capture and sequestration, low-carbon fuels, electric vehicles and electricity transmission.

Browner stressed that climate change issues are often framed as a false choice between economic interests and environmental ones, but said that in fact each depends on the other, and improvements in energy technology provide great economic opportunities. "A new energy future and reduced global warming are two sides of a coin," she said.

Browner said that while renewable energy now accounts for about 3 percent of U.S. electricity production, "we hope we can double that in the next three to four years." And the new energy bill would help to make that possible.

But such rapid growth in new technology presents a big challenge, Moniz said. To make a dent in climate change, "these technologies must go to very large scale very quickly," he said. That means it's essential to be working on a multiplicity of options, and it will also be essential to bring about "better integration of the entrepreneurial community with the existing energy companies. We need to get scale-up on a timescale much shorter than has tended to be the case."

Hockfield also said that "Congressman Markey's bill takes direct aim at climate change by pricing carbon, an approach that we anticipate will provide a sustained source of funding for the R&D needed for new energy technologies… We will never make it to a carbon-free energy landscape as long as carbon is free."

At the colloquium, Markey was asked whether this pricing, which is based on a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions, should include auctioning of all emission permits as a way of raising funds for energy initiatives, rather than issuing some of the permits without cost to existing greenhouse-gas emitters. He stressed that such a system would initially put critical U.S. industries, such as steel and paper manufacturing, at a disadvantage in relation to companies in China and other nations, unless such a plan were universally adopted.

While he aims to get the new energy bill through Congress before the summer recess this year, he said, the details can evolve over time. As for the cap-and-trade component, "the goal would be over time to move toward, at the end of the process, 100 percent" auction-based system, he said. However, "we have to begin somewhere."

Right away, he said, this legislation "will create jobs by the millions, save money by the billions, and unleash energy investment by the trillions."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 15, 2009 (download PDF).

Topics: Energy, Environment, National relations and service, Special events and guest speakers

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