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    Evan Leppink: Seeking a way to better stabilize the fusion environment

    “Fusion energy was always one of those kind-of sci-fi technologies that you read about,” says nuclear science and engineering PhD candidate Evan Leppink. He’s recalling the time before fusion became a part of his daily hands-on experience at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, where he is studying a unique way to drive current in a tokamak plasma using radiofrequency (RF) waves. 

    Now, an award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) Program will support his work with a 12-month residency at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility in San Diego, California.

    Like all tokamaks, DIII-D generates hot plasma inside a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber wrapped with magnets. Because plasma will follow magnetic field lines, tokamaks are able to contain the turbulent plasma fuel as it gets hotter and denser, keeping it away from the edges of the chamber where it could damage the wall materials. A key part of the tokamak concept is that part of the magnetic field is created by electrical currents in the plasma itself, which helps to confine and stabilize the configuration. Researchers often launch high-power RF waves into tokamaks to drive that current.

    Leppink will be contributing to research, led by his MIT advisor Steve Wukitch, that pursues launching RF waves in DIII-D using a unique compact antenna placed on the tokamak center column. Typically, antennas are placed inside the tokamak on the outer edge of the doughnut, farthest from the central hole (or column), primarily because access and installation are easier there. This is known as the “low-field side,” because the magnetic field is lower there than at the central column, the “high-field side.” This MIT-led experiment, for the first time, will mount an antenna on the high-field side. There is some theoretical evidence that placing the wave launcher there could improve power penetration and current drive efficiency. And because the plasma environment is less harsh on this side, the antenna will survive longer, a factor important for any future power-producing tokamak.

    Leppink’s work on DIII-D focuses specifically on measuring the density of plasmas generated in the tokamak, for which he developed a “reflectometer.” This small antenna launches microwaves into the plasma, which reflect back to the antenna to be measured. The time that it takes for these microwaves to traverse the plasma provides information about the plasma density, allowing researchers to build up detailed density profiles, data critical for injecting RF power into the plasma.

    “Research shows that when we try to inject these waves into the plasma to drive the current, they can lose power as they travel through the edge region of the tokamak, and can even have problems entering the core of the plasma, where we would most like to direct them,” says Leppink. “My diagnostic will measure that edge region on the high-field side near the launcher in great detail, which provides us a way to directly verify calculations or compare actual results with simulation results.”

    Although focused on his own research, Leppink has excelled at priming other students for success in their studies and research. In 2021 he received the NSE Outstanding Teaching Assistant and Mentorship Award.

    “The highlights of TA’ing for me were the times when I could watch students go from struggling with a difficult topic to fully understanding it, often with just a nudge in the right direction and then allowing them to follow their own intuition the rest of the way,” he says.

    The right direction for Leppink points toward San Diego and RF current drive experiments on DIII-D. He is grateful for the support from the SCGSR, a program created to prepare graduate students like him for science, technology, engineering, or mathematics careers important to the DOE Office of Science mission. It provides graduate thesis research opportunities through extended residency at DOE national laboratories. He has already made several trips to DIII-D, in part to install his reflectometer, and has been impressed with the size of the operation.

    “It takes a little while to kind of compartmentalize everything and say, ‘OK, well, here’s my part of the machine. This is what I’m doing.’ It can definitely be overwhelming at times. But I’m blessed to be able to work on what has been the workhorse tokamak of the United States for the past few decades.” More

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    Helping renewable energy projects succeed in local communities

    Jungwoo Chun makes surprising discoveries about sustainability initiatives by zooming in on local communities.

    His discoveries lie in understanding how renewable energy infrastructure develops at a local level. With so many stakeholders in a community — citizens, government officials, businesses, and other organizations — the development process gets complicated very quickly. Chun works to unpack stakeholder relationships to help local renewable energy projects move forward.

    While his interests today are in local communities around the U.S., Chun comes from a global background. Growing up, his family moved frequently due to his dad’s work. He lived in Seoul, South Korea until elementary school and then hopped from city to city around Asia, spending time in China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. When it was time for college, he returned to South Korea, majoring in international studies at Korea University and later completing his master’s there in the same field.

    After graduating, Chun wanted to leverage his international expertise to tackle climate change. So, he pursued a second master’s in international environmental policy with William Moomaw at Tufts University.

    During that time, Chun came across an article on climate change by David Victor, a professor in public policy at the University of California at San Diego. Victor argued that while international efforts to fight climate change are necessary, more tangible progress can be made through local efforts catered to each country. That prompted Chun to think a step further: “What can we do in the local community to make a little bit of a difference, which could add up to something big in the long term?”

    With a renewed direction for his goals, Chun arrived at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, specializing in environmental policy and planning. But he was still missing that final inspirational spark to proactively pursue his goals — until he began working with his primary advisor, Lawrence Susskind, the Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning and director of the Science Impact Collaborative.

    For previous research projects, “I would just do what I was told,” Chun says, but his new advisor “really opened [his] eyes” to being an active member of the community. From the start, Susskind has encouraged Chun to share his research ideas and has shown him how to leverage his research skills for public service. Over the past few years, Chun has also taught several classes with Susskind, learning to approach education thoughtfully for an engaging and equitable classroom. Because of their relationship, Chun now always searches for ways to make a difference through research, teaching, and public service.

    Understanding renewable energy projects at a local level

    For his main dissertation project with Susskind, Chun is studying community-owned solar energy projects, working to understand what makes them successful.

    Often, communities don’t have the required expertise to carry out these projects on their own and instead look to advisory organizations for help. But little research has been done on these organizations and the roles that they play in developing solar energy infrastructure.

    Through over 200 surveys and counting, Chun has discovered that these organizations act as life-long collaborators to communities and are critical in getting community-owned solar projects up and running. At the start of these projects, they walk communities through a mountain of logistics for setting up solar energy infrastructure, including permit applications, budgeting, and contractor employment. After the infrastructure is in place, the organizations stay involved, serving as consultants when needed and sometimes even becoming partners.

    Because of these roles, Chun calls these organizations “intermediaries,” drawing a parallel with roles in in conflict resolution. “But it’s much more than that,” he adds. Intermediaries help local communities “build a movement [for community-owned solar energy projects] … and empower them to be independent and self-sustaining.”

    Chun is also working on another project with Susskind, looking at situations where communities are opposed to renewable energy infrastructure. For this project, Chun is supervising and mentoring a group of five undergraduates. Together, they are trying to pinpoint the reasons behind local opposition to renewable energy projects.

    The idea for this project emerged two years ago, when Chun heard in the news that many solar and wind projects were being delayed or cancelled due to local opposition. But the reasons for this opposition weren’t thoroughly researched.

    “When we started to dig a little deeper, [we found that] communities oppose these projects even though they aren’t opposed to renewable energy,” Chun says. The primary reasons for opposition lie in land use concerns, including financial challenges, health and safety concerns, and ironically, environmental consequences. By better understanding these concerns, Chun hopes to help more renewable energy projects succeed and bring society closer to a sustainable future.

    Bringing research to the classroom and community

    Right now, Chun is looking to bring his research insights on renewable energy infrastructure into the classroom. He’s developing a course on renewable energy that will act as a “clinic” where students will work with communities to understand their concerns for potential renewable energy projects. The students’ findings will then be passed onto project leaders to help them address these concerns.

    This new course is modeled after 11.074/11.274 (Cybersecurity Clinic), which Chun has helped develop over the past few years. In this clinic, students work with local governments in New England to assess potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities in their digital systems. At first, “a lot of city governments were very skeptical, like ‘students doing service for us…?’” Chun says. “But in the end, they were all very satisfied with the outcome” and found the assessments “impactful.”

    Since the Cybersecurity Clinic has kicked off, other universities have approached Chun and his co-instructors about developing their own regional clinics. Now, there are cybersecurity clinics operating around the world. “That’s been a huge success,” Chun says. Going forward, “we’d like to expand the benefit of this clinic [to address] communities opposing renewable energy [projects].” The new course will be a philosophical trifecta for Chun, combining his commitments to research, teaching, and public service.

    Chun plans to wrap up his PhD at the end of this summer and is currently writing his dissertation on community-owned solar energy projects. “I’m done with all the background work — working the soil and throwing the seeds in the right place,” he says, “It’s now time to gather all the crops and present the work.” More

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    MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium announces recipients of inaugural MCSC Seed Awards

    The MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC) has awarded 20 projects a total of $5 million over two years in its first-ever 2022 MCSC Seed Awards program. The winning projects are led by principal investigators across all five of MIT’s schools.

    The goal of the MCSC Seed Awards is to engage MIT researchers and link the economy-wide work of the consortium to ongoing and emerging climate and sustainability efforts across campus. The program offers further opportunity to build networks among the awarded projects to deepen the impact of each and ensure the total is greater than the sum of its parts.

    For example, to drive progress under the awards category Circularity and Materials, the MCSC can facilitate connections between the technologists at MIT who are developing recovery approaches for metals, plastics, and fiber; the urban planners who are uncovering barriers to reuse; and the engineers, who will look for efficiency opportunities in reverse supply chains.

    “The MCSC Seed Awards are designed to complement actions previously outlined in Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade and, more specifically, the Climate Grand Challenges,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering, Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and chair of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium. “In collaboration with seed award recipients and MCSC industry members, we are eager to engage in interdisciplinary exploration and propel urgent advancements in climate and sustainability.” 

    By supporting MIT researchers with expertise in economics, infrastructure, community risk assessment, mobility, and alternative fuels, the MCSC will accelerate implementation of cross-disciplinary solutions in the awards category Decarbonized and Resilient Value Chains. Enhancing Natural Carbon Sinks and building connections to local communities will require associations across experts in ecosystem change, biodiversity, improved agricultural practice and engagement with farmers, all of which the consortium can begin to foster through the seed awards.

    “Funding opportunities across campus has been a top priority since launching the MCSC,” says Jeremy Gregory, MCSC executive director. “It is our honor to support innovative teams of MIT researchers through the inaugural 2022 MCSC Seed Awards program.”

    The winning projects are tightly aligned with the MCSC’s areas of focus, which were derived from a year of highly engaged collaborations with MCSC member companies. The projects apply across the member’s climate and sustainability goals.

    The MCSC’s 16 member companies span many industries, and since early 2021, have met with members of the MIT community to define focused problem statements for industry-specific challenges, identify meaningful partnerships and collaborations, and develop clear and scalable priorities. Outcomes from these collaborations laid the foundation for the focus areas, which have shaped the work of the MCSC. Specifically, the MCSC Industry Advisory Board engaged with MIT on key strategic directions, and played a critical role in the MCSC’s series of interactive events. These included virtual workshops hosted last summer, each on a specific topic that allowed companies to work with MIT and each other to align key assumptions, identify blind spots in corporate goal-setting, and leverage synergies between members, across industries. The work continued in follow-up sessions and an annual symposium.

    “We are excited to see how the seed award efforts will help our member companies reach or even exceed their ambitious climate targets, find new cross-sector links among each other, seek opportunities to lead, and ripple key lessons within their industry, while also deepening the Institute’s strong foundation in climate and sustainability research,” says Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and MCSC co-director.

    As the seed projects take shape, the MCSC will provide ongoing opportunities for awardees to engage with the Industry Advisory Board and technical teams from the MCSC member companies to learn more about the potential for linking efforts to support and accelerate their climate and sustainability goals. Awardees will also have the chance to engage with other members of the MCSC community, including its interdisciplinary Faculty Steering Committee.

    “One of our mantras in the MCSC is to ‘amplify and extend’ existing efforts across campus; we’re always looking for ways to connect the collaborative industry relationships we’re building and the work we’re doing with other efforts on campus,” notes Jeffrey Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and MCSC co-director. “We feel the urgency as well as the potential, and we don’t want to miss opportunities to do more and go faster.”

    The MCSC Seed Awards complement the Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to mobilize the entire MIT research community around developing the bold, interdisciplinary solutions needed to address difficult, unsolved climate problems. The 27 finalist teams addressed four broad research themes, which align with the MCSC’s focus areas. From these finalist teams, five flagship projects were announced in April 2022.

    The parallels between MCSC’s focus areas and the Climate Grand Challenges themes underscore an important connection between the shared long-term research interests of industry and academia. The challenges that some of the world’s largest and most influential companies have identified are complementary to MIT’s ongoing research and innovation — highlighting the tremendous opportunity to develop breakthroughs and scalable solutions quickly and effectively. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry underscored the importance of developing these scalable solutions, including critical new technology, during a conversation with MIT President L. Rafael Reif at MIT’s first Climate Grand Challenges showcase event last month.

    Both the MCSC Seed Awards and the Climate Grand Challenges are part of MIT’s larger commitment and initiative to combat climate change; this was underscored in “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021.

    The project titles and research leads for each of the 20 awardees listed below are categorized by MCSC focus area.

    Decarbonized and resilient value chains

    “Collaborative community mapping toolkit for resilience planning,” led by Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab (a research lead on Climate Grand Challenges flagship project) and Nicholas de Monchaux, professor and department head in the Department of Architecture
    “CP4All: Fast and local climate projections with scientific machine learning — towards accessibility for all of humanity,” led by Chris Hill, principal research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab and the Apollo Program Professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
    “Emissions reductions and productivity in U.S. manufacturing,” led by Mert Demirer, assistant professor of applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Jing Li, assistant professor and William Barton Rogers Career Development Chair of Energy Economics in the MIT Sloan School of Management
    “Logistics electrification through scalable and inter-operable charging infrastructure: operations, planning, and policy,” led by Alex Jacquillat, the 1942 Career Development Professor and assistant professor of operations research and statistics in the MIT Sloan School of Management
    “Powertrain and system design for LOHC-powered long-haul trucking,” led by William Green, the Hoyt Hottel Professor in Chemical Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering and postdoctoral officer, and Wai K. Cheng, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory
    “Sustainable Separation and Purification of Biochemicals and Biofuels using Membranes,” led by John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, and director of the Rohsenow Kendall Heat Transfer Laboratory; and Nicolas Hadjiconstantinou, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, co-director of the Center for Computational Science and Engineering, associate director of the Center for Exascale Simulation of Materials in Extreme Environments, and graduate officer
    “Toolkit for assessing the vulnerability of industry infrastructure siting to climate change,” led by Michael Howland, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Circularity and Materials

    “Colorimetric Sulfidation for Aluminum Recycling,” led by Antoine Allanore, associate professor of metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering
    “Double Loop Circularity in Materials Design Demonstrated on Polyurethanes,” led by Brad Olsen, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor and graduate admissions co-chair in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Kristala Prather, the Arthur Dehon Little Professor and department executive officer in the Department of Chemical Engineering
    “Engineering of a microbial consortium to degrade and valorize plastic waste,” led by Otto Cordero, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Desiree Plata, the Gilbert W. Winslow (1937) Career Development Professor in Civil Engineering and associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
    “Fruit-peel-inspired, biodegradable packaging platform with multifunctional barrier properties,” led by Kripa Varanasi, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
    “High Throughput Screening of Sustainable Polyesters for Fibers,” led by Gregory Rutledge, the Lammot du Pont Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Brad Olsen, Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor and graduate admissions co-chair in the Department of Chemical Engineering
    “Short-term and long-term efficiency gains in reverse supply chains,” led by Yossi Sheffi, the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics
    The costs and benefits of circularity in building construction, led by Siqi Zheng, the STL Champion Professor of Urban and Real Estate Sustainability at the MIT Center for Real Estate and Department of Urban Studies and Planning, faculty director of the MIT Center for Real Estate, and faculty director for the MIT Sustainable Urbanization Lab; and Randolph Kirchain, principal research scientist and co-director of MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub

    Natural carbon sinks

    “Carbon sequestration through sustainable practices by smallholder farmers,” led by Joann de Zegher, the Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor and assistant professor of operations management in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Karen Zheng the George M. Bunker Professor and associate professor of operations management in the MIT Sloan School of Management
    “Coatings to protect and enhance diverse microbes for improved soil health and crop yields,” led by Ariel Furst, the Raymond A. (1921) And Helen E. St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Mary Gehring, associate professor of biology in the Department of Biology, core member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and graduate officer
    “ECO-LENS: Mainstreaming biodiversity data through AI,” led by John Fernández, professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture and director of MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative
    “Growing season length, productivity, and carbon balance of global ecosystems under climate change,” led by Charles Harvey, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and César Terrer, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Social dimensions and adaptation

    “Anthro-engineering decarbonization at the million-person scale,” led by Manduhai Buyandelger, professor in the Anthropology Section, and Michael Short, the Class of ’42 Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
    “Sustainable solutions for climate change adaptation: weaving traditional ecological knowledge and STEAM,” led by Janelle Knox-Hayes, the Lister Brothers Associate Professor of Economic Geography and Planning and head of the Environmental Policy and Planning Group in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab (a research lead on a Climate Grand Challenges flagship project) More

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    Expanding energy access in rural Lesotho

    Matt Orosz’s mission for the last 20 years can be explained with a single picture: a satellite image of the world at night, with major cities blazing with light and large swaths of land shrouded in darkness.

    The image reminds Orosz SM ’03, SM ’06, PhD ’12 of what he’s trying to change. Orosz is the CEO of OnePower, an MIT spinout building networks of minigrids powered by solar energy to bring electricity to rural regions of Lesotho.

    There are other companies building minigrids in Africa, but OnePower is the only one to have accomplished the feat in Lesotho, and it’s not hard to understand why. Known as the kingdom in the sky, Lesotho is a small, developing country crossed by mountain ranges and rivers, making it difficult to get electricity to rural regions. Recent estimates suggest that less than half of all households have electricity.

    OnePower’s first minigrid is a small system that has been serving around 200 customers for more than a year. The operation is part of an eight-minigrid project that will provide reliable electricity for the first time to more than 30,000 people, 13 health clinics, 25 schools, and over 100 small businesses.

    Construction on those sites is underway, and Orosz is currently working on a power transmission and road crossing over the Senqu river, the largest in southern Africa. During the project, the operators of a health clinic on the off-grid side of the river let Orosz stay there on the condition that he fix their diesel generator. He got the generator working again, but if everything goes according to plan, the clinic won’t need it for much longer.

    “If you don’t have power, then you don’t have lights, you don’t have computers, you don’t have communications,” Orosz says. “That means hospitals can’t refer patients or get expert opinions or run equipment, and schools can’t get internet. When the fundamental institutions for health and education don’t have power, their effectiveness is pretty limited, which affects quality of life for everybody that lives in the area.”

    Finding a spark

    The health clinic Orosz is staying in isn’t far from where he first learned about energy access problems in rural Africa. Between 2000 and 2002, Orosz lived in Lesotho, without electricity, as a member of the Peace Corps. The experience inspired him to help, but without an engineering background, he knew he’d need to gain more skills first.

    “I applied to MIT so that I could gain some knowledge and experience and apply it in this setting,” Orosz says, noting he spent a lot longer at MIT than he initially intended.

    Orosz first joined the research lab of Harry Hemond, the William E Leonhard Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, learning about topics like physics and fluid mechanics as part of his first year at MIT. After that, he enrolled in another master’s program in technology and policy. In 2007, he began a PhD at MIT studying solar thermal and photovoltaic hybrid power generation.

    The education wasn’t the only reason Orosz stayed at MIT. Throughout his time on campus, he also took advantage of funding opportunities presented by the IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge and the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition (the $50K at the time). Orosz was also awarded a Fulbright scholarship while at MIT, and was selected for grants from the World Bank and the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Orosz also aligned himself closely with MIT D-Lab. During his second master’s, he led trips to Lesotho with other D-Lab students. Between his master’s and his PhD, Orosz spent a year living in Lesotho exploring energy solutions with three other MIT students, including Amy Mueller ’02, SM ’03, PhD ’12, who is currently chief financial officer of OnePower.

    In 2015, Orosz moved to Lesotho to work on OnePower full-time. The move coincided with OnePower’s successful bid to develop the first utility-scale solar project in Lesotho, a 20-megawatt project that will sell electricity to Lesotho’s central grid in addition to OnePower’s minigrid work. OnePower expects that project, named Neo 1, to start delivering power to Lesotho’s central electric grid next year.

    “It takes quite a lot of time and money to develop utility scale solar projects, but we’ve been told by investors and partners that seven years is not unusual,” Orosz says. “It kind of reminds me of the time it took to get a PhD — surprisingly long, but corroborated by others’ experiences.”

    In conjunction with the grid-scale project, OnePower also piloted the first privately financed, fully licensed minigrid in Lesotho. The company has also set up minigrids to help power six health care centers in the mountains of Lesotho.

    OnePower’s grid-scale project and its minigrids use industry standard, large-format bifacial solar panels, mounted on single axis tracking substructures designed and built in Lesotho by OnePower, but the minigrids send energy to a powerhouse filled with lithium-ion batteries. From there, transmission lines bring the electricity to different villages, where it powers homes, businesses, schools, health clinics, police stations, churches, and more. A smart meter at each customer’s building tracks electricity usage, and customers use a phone app to pay for their electricity.

    OnePower secured funding for the projects from a network of private investors rather than through grants and donations. By paying the investors back, Orosz says OnePower will be showing that funding such projects can be a profitable investment in addition to an impactful one.

    That’s important because grants and donations will only take minigrid operators so far. Orosz says in order to provide reliable electricity to the entire continent of Africa, a huge amount of private investment is needed.

    “The goal is ultimately to prove that you can make this work: that you can generate electricity and sell it to a customer in Africa, and that revenue enables you to pay back the financier that helped you build the infrastructure in the first place,” Orosz says. “Once you close that loop, then it can scale. That’s the holy grail of minigrids.”

    Orosz believes OnePower is differentiated from other minigrid companies in that it develops and owns more of the value chain, like the tracking substructures that allow solar panels to adjust with the sun, which has helped the company continue operations during the pandemic. The technical innovations his team developed at MIT ultimately help OnePower offer lower electricity prices to people in Lesotho.

    Turning the lights on

    OnePower has doubled its employees over the last year as construction on the eight minigrids ramps up. As his team stays busy rolling those projects out, Orosz is already exploring options for the next cluster of minigrids OnePower will build.

    “If we can solve the economics and logistics in Lesotho, then it should be a lot easier to replicate this in other markets,” Orosz says.

    The goal is to bring OnePower’s minigrids to the rural communities that would benefit from them the most. As the satellite image of earth at night shows, that includes many unelectrified community across sub-Saharan Africa.

    “We think Africans in rural areas should have the same quality of power as Africans in urban areas, and that should be the same quality power as everywhere else in the world,” Orosz says. More

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    Energy storage important to creating affordable, reliable, deeply decarbonized electricity systems

    In deeply decarbonized energy systems utilizing high penetrations of variable renewable energy (VRE), energy storage is needed to keep the lights on and the electricity flowing when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing — when generation from these VRE resources is low or demand is high. The MIT Energy Initiative’s Future of Energy Storage study makes clear the need for energy storage and explores pathways using VRE resources and storage to reach decarbonized electricity systems efficiently by 2050.

    “The Future of Energy Storage,” a new multidisciplinary report from the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), urges government investment in sophisticated analytical tools for planning, operation, and regulation of electricity systems in order to deploy and use storage efficiently. Because storage technologies will have the ability to substitute for or complement essentially all other elements of a power system, including generation, transmission, and demand response, these tools will be critical to electricity system designers, operators, and regulators in the future. The study also recommends additional support for complementary staffing and upskilling programs at regulatory agencies at the state and federal levels. 

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    Why is energy storage so important?

    The MITEI report shows that energy storage makes deep decarbonization of reliable electric power systems affordable. “Fossil fuel power plant operators have traditionally responded to demand for electricity — in any given moment — by adjusting the supply of electricity flowing into the grid,” says MITEI Director Robert Armstrong, the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering and chair of the Future of Energy Storage study. “But VRE resources such as wind and solar depend on daily and seasonal variations as well as weather fluctuations; they aren’t always available to be dispatched to follow electricity demand. Our study finds that energy storage can help VRE-dominated electricity systems balance electricity supply and demand while maintaining reliability in a cost-effective manner — that in turn can support the electrification of many end-use activities beyond the electricity sector.”

    The three-year study is designed to help government, industry, and academia chart a path to developing and deploying electrical energy storage technologies as a way of encouraging electrification and decarbonization throughout the economy, while avoiding excessive or inequitable burdens.

    Focusing on three distinct regions of the United States, the study shows the need for a varied approach to energy storage and electricity system design in different parts of the country. Using modeling tools to look out to 2050, the study team also focuses beyond the United States, to emerging market and developing economy (EMDE) countries, particularly as represented by India. The findings highlight the powerful role storage can play in EMDE nations. These countries are expected to see massive growth in electricity demand over the next 30 years, due to rapid overall economic expansion and to increasing adoption of electricity-consuming technologies such as air conditioning. In particular, the study calls attention to the pivotal role battery storage can play in decarbonizing grids in EMDE countries that lack access to low-cost gas and currently rely on coal generation.

    The authors find that investment in VRE combined with storage is favored over new coal generation over the medium and long term in India, although existing coal plants may linger unless forced out by policy measures such as carbon pricing. 

    “Developing countries are a crucial part of the global decarbonization challenge,” says Robert Stoner, the deputy director for science and technology at MITEI and one of the report authors. “Our study shows how they can take advantage of the declining costs of renewables and storage in the coming decades to become climate leaders without sacrificing economic development and modernization.”

    The study examines four kinds of storage technologies: electrochemical, thermal, chemical, and mechanical. Some of these technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries, pumped storage hydro, and some thermal storage options, are proven and available for commercial deployment. The report recommends that the government focus R&D efforts on other storage technologies, which will require further development to be available by 2050 or sooner — among them, projects to advance alternative electrochemical storage technologies that rely on earth-abundant materials. It also suggests government incentives and mechanisms that reward success but don’t interfere with project management. The report calls for the federal government to change some of the rules governing technology demonstration projects to enable more projects on storage. Policies that require cost-sharing in exchange for intellectual property rights, the report argues, discourage the dissemination of knowledge. The report advocates for federal requirements for demonstration projects that share information with other U.S. entities.

    The report says many existing power plants that are being shut down can be converted to useful energy storage facilities by replacing their fossil fuel boilers with thermal storage and new steam generators. This retrofit can be done using commercially available technologies and may be attractive to plant owners and communities — using assets that would otherwise be abandoned as electricity systems decarbonize.  

    The study also looks at hydrogen and concludes that its use for storage will likely depend on the extent to which hydrogen is used in the overall economy. That broad use of hydrogen, the report says, will be driven by future costs of hydrogen production, transportation, and storage — and by the pace of innovation in hydrogen end-use applications. 

    The MITEI study predicts the distribution of hourly wholesale prices or the hourly marginal value of energy will change in deeply decarbonized power systems — with many more hours of very low prices and more hours of high prices compared to today’s wholesale markets. So the report recommends systems adopt retail pricing and retail load management options that reward all consumers for shifting electricity use away from times when high wholesale prices indicate scarcity, to times when low wholesale prices signal abundance. 

    The Future of Energy Storage study is the ninth in MITEI’s “Future of” series, exploring complex and vital issues involving energy and the environment. Previous studies have focused on nuclear power, solar energy, natural gas, geothermal energy, and coal (with capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide emissions), as well as on systems such as the U.S. electric power grid. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation provided core funding for MITEI’s Future of Energy Storage study. MITEI members Equinor and Shell provided additional support.  More

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    MIT Climate “Plug-In” highlights first year of progress on MIT’s climate plan

    In a combined in-person and virtual event on Monday, members of the three working groups established last year under MIT’s “Fast Forward” climate action plan reported on the work they’ve been doing to meet the plan’s goals, including reaching zero direct carbon emissions by 2026.

    Introducing the session, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said that “many universities have climate plans that are inward facing, mostly focused on the direct impacts of their operations on greenhouse gas emissions. And that is really important, but ‘Fast Forward’ is different in that it’s also outward facing — it recognizes climate change as a global crisis.”

    That, she said, “commits us to an all-of-MIT effort to help the world solve the super wicked problem in practice.” That means “helping the world to go as far as it can, as fast as it can, to deploy currently available technologies and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” while also quickly developing new tools and approaches to deal with the most difficult areas of decarbonization, she said.

    Significant strides have been made in this first year, according to Zuber. The Climate Grand Challenges competition, announced last year as part of the plan, has just announced five flagship projects. “Each of these projects is potentially important in its own right, and is also exemplary of the kinds of bold thinking about climate solutions that the world needs,” she said.

    “We’ve also created new climate-focused institutions within MIT to improve accountability and transparency and to drive action,” Zuber said, including the Climate Nucleus, which comprises heads of labs and departments involved in climate-change work and is led by professors Noelle Selin and Anne White. The “Fast Forward” plan also established three working groups that report to the Climate Nucleus — on climate education, climate policy, and MIT’s carbon footprint — whose members spoke at Monday’s event.

    David McGee, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary science, co-director of MIT’s Terrascope program for first-year students, and co-chair of the education working group, said that over the last few years of Terrascope, “we’ve begun focusing much more explicitly on the experiences of, and the knowledge contained within, impacted communities … both for mitigation efforts and how they play out, and also adaptation.” Figuring out how to access the expertise of local communities “in a way that’s not extractive is a challenge that we face,” he added.

    Eduardo Rivera, managing director for MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) programs in several countries and a member of the education team, noted that about 1,000 undergraduates travel each year to work on climate and sustainability challenges. These include, for example, working with a lab in Peru assessing pollution in the Amazon, developing new insulation materials in Germany, developing affordable solar panels in China, working on carbon-capture technology in France or Israel, and many others, Rivera said. These are “unique opportunities to learn about the discipline, where the students can do hands-on work along with the professionals and the scientists in the front lines.” He added that MISTI has just launched a pilot project to help these students “to calculate their carbon footprint, to give them resources, and to understand individual responsibilities and collective responsibilities in this area.”

    Yujie Wang, a graduate student in architecture and an education working group member, said that during her studies she worked on a project focused on protecting biodiversity in Colombia, and also worked with a startup to reduce pesticide use in farming through digital monitoring. In Colombia, she said, she came to appreciate the value of interactions among researchers using satellite data, with local organizations, institutions and officials, to foster collaboration on solving common problems.

    The second panel addressed policy issues, as reflected by the climate policy working group. David Goldston, director of MIT’s Washington office, said “I think policy is totally central, in that for each part of the climate problem, you really can’t make progress without policy.” Part of that, he said, “involves government activities to help communities, and … to make sure the transition [involving the adoption of new technologies] is as equitable as possible.”

    Goldston said “a lot of the progress that’s been made already, whether it’s movement toward solar and wind energy and many other things, has been really prompted by government policy. I think sometimes people see it as a contest, should we be focusing on technology or policy, but I see them as two sides of the same coin. … You can’t get the technology you need into operation without policy tools, and the policy tools won’t have anything to work with unless technology is developed.”

    As for MIT, he said, “I think everybody at MIT who works on any aspect of climate change should be thinking about what’s the policy aspect of it, how could policy help them? How could they help policymakers? I think we need to coordinate better.” The Institute needs to be more strategic, he said, but “that doesn’t mean MIT advocating for specific policies. It means advocating for climate action and injecting a wide range of ideas into the policy arena.”

    Anushree Chaudhari, a student in economics and in urban studies and planning, said she has been learning about the power of negotiations in her work with Professor Larry Susskind. “What we’re currently working on is understanding why there are so many sources of local opposition to scaling renewable energy projects in the U.S.,” she explained. “Even though over 77 percent of the U.S. population actually is in support of renewables, and renewables are actually economically pretty feasible as their costs have come down in the last two decades, there’s still a huge social barrier to having them become the new norm,” she said. She emphasized that a fair and just energy transition will require listening to community stakeholders, including indigenous groups and low-income communities, and understanding why they may oppose utility-scale solar farms and wind farms.

    Joy Jackson, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, said that the implementation of research findings into policy at state, local, and national levels is a “very messy, nonlinear, sort of chaotic process.” One avenue for research to make its way into policy, she said, is through formal processes, such as congressional testimony. But a lot is also informal, as she learned while working as an intern in government offices, where she and her colleagues reached out to professors, researchers, and technical experts of various kinds while in the very early stages of policy development.

    “The good news,” she said, “is there’s a lot of touch points.”

    The third panel featured members of the working group studying ways to reduce MIT’s own carbon footprint. Julie Newman, head of MIT’s Office of Sustainability and co-chair of that group, summed up MIT’s progress toward its stated goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2026. “I can cautiously say we’re on track for that one,” she said. Despite headwinds in the solar industry due to supply chain issues, she said, “we’re well positioned” to meet that near-term target.

    As for working toward the 2050 target of eliminating all direct emissions, she said, it is “quite a challenge.” But under the leadership of Joe Higgins, the vice president for campus services and stewardship, MIT is implementing a number of measures, including deep energy retrofits, investments in high-performance buildings, an extremely efficient central utilities plant, and more.

    She added that MIT is particularly well-positioned in its thinking about scaling its solutions up. “A couple of years ago we approached a handful of local organizations, and over a couple of years have built a consortium to look at large-scale carbon reduction in the world. And it’s a brilliant partnership,” she said, noting that details are still being worked out and will be reported later.

    The work is challenging, because “MIT was built on coal, this campus was not built to get to zero carbon emissions.” Nevertheless, “we think we’re on track” to meet the ambitious goals of the Fast Forward plan, she said. “We’re going to have to have multiple pathways, because we may come to a pathway that may turn out not to be feasible.”

    Jay Dolan, head of facilities development at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, said that campus faces extra hurdles compared to the main MIT campus, as it occupies buildings that are owned and maintained by the U.S. Air Force, not MIT. They are still at the data-gathering stage to see what they can do to improve their emissions, he said, and a website they set up to solicit suggestions for reducing their emissions had received 70 suggestions within a few days, which are still being evaluated. “All that enthusiasm, along with the intelligence at the laboratory, is very promising,” he said.

    Peter Jacobson, a graduate student in Leaders for Global Operations, said that in his experience, projects that are most successful start not from a focus on the technology, but from collaborative efforts working with multiple stakeholders. “I think this is exactly why the Climate Nucleus and our working groups are so important here at MIT,” he said. “We need people tasked with thinking at this campus scale, figuring out what the needs and priorities of all the departments are and looking for those synergies, and aligning those needs across both internal and external stakeholders.”

    But, he added, “MIT’s complexity and scale of operations definitely poses unique challenges. Advanced research is energy hungry, and in many cases we don’t have the technology to decarbonize those research processes yet. And we have buildings of varying ages with varying stages of investment.” In addition, MIT has “a lot of people that it needs to feed, and that need to travel and commute, so that poses additional and different challenges.”

    Asked what individuals can do to help MIT in this process, Newman said, “Begin to leverage and figure out how you connect your research to informing our thinking on campus. We have channels for that.”

    Noelle Selin, co-chair of MIT’s climate nucleus and moderator of the third panel, said in conclusion “we’re really looking for your input into all of these working groups and all of these efforts. This is a whole of campus effort. It’s a whole of world effort to address the climate challenge. So, please get in touch and use this as a call to action.” More

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    MIT expands research collaboration with Commonwealth Fusion Systems to build net energy fusion machine, SPARC

    MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) will substantially expand its fusion energy research and education activities under a new five-year agreement with Institute spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).

    “This expanded relationship puts MIT and PSFC in a prime position to be an even stronger academic leader that can help deliver the research and education needs of the burgeoning fusion energy industry, in part by utilizing the world’s first burning plasma and net energy fusion machine, SPARC,” says PSFC director Dennis Whyte. “CFS will build SPARC and develop a commercial fusion product, while MIT PSFC will focus on its core mission of cutting-edge research and education.”

    Commercial fusion energy has the potential to play a significant role in combating climate change, and there is a concurrent increase in interest from the energy sector, governments, and foundations. The new agreement, administered by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), where CFS is a startup member, will help PSFC expand its fusion technology efforts with a wider variety of sponsors. The collaboration enables rapid execution at scale and technology transfer into the commercial sector as soon as possible.

    This new agreement doubles CFS’ financial commitment to PSFC, enabling greater recruitment and support of students, staff, and faculty. “We’ll significantly increase the number of graduate students and postdocs, and just as important they will be working on a more diverse set of fusion science and technology topics,” notes Whyte. It extends the collaboration between PSFC and CFS that resulted in numerous advances toward fusion power plants, including last fall’s demonstration of a high-temperature superconducting (HTS) fusion electromagnet with record-setting field strength of 20 tesla.

    The combined magnetic fusion efforts at PSFC will surpass those in place during the operations of the pioneering Alcator C-Mod tokamak device that operated from 1993 to 2016. This increase in activity reflects a moment when multiple fusion energy technologies are seeing rapidly accelerating development worldwide, and the emergence of a new fusion energy industry that would require thousands of trained people.

    MITEI director Robert Armstrong adds, “Our goal from the beginning was to create a membership model that would allow startups who have specific research challenges to leverage the MITEI ecosystem, including MIT faculty, students, and other MITEI members. The team at the PSFC and MITEI have worked seamlessly to support CFS, and we are excited for this next phase of the relationship.”

    PSFC is supporting CFS’ efforts toward realizing the SPARC fusion platform, which facilitates rapid development and refinement of elements (including HTS magnets) needed to build ARC, a compact, modular, high-field fusion power plant that would set the stage for commercial fusion energy production. The concepts originated in Whyte’s nuclear science and engineering class 22.63 (Principles of Fusion Engineering) and have been carried forward by students and PSFC staff, many of whom helped found CFS; the new activity will expand research into advanced technologies for the envisioned pilot plant.

    “This has been an incredibly effective collaboration that has resulted in a major breakthrough for commercial fusion with the successful demonstration of revolutionary fusion magnet technology that will enable the world’s first commercially relevant net energy fusion device, SPARC, currently under construction,” says Bob Mumgaard SM ’15, PhD ’15, CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems. “We look forward to this next phase in the collaboration with MIT as we tackle the critical research challenges ahead for the next steps toward fusion power plant development.”

    In the push for commercial fusion energy, the next five years are critical, requiring intensive work on materials longevity, heat transfer, fuel recycling, maintenance, and other crucial aspects of power plant development. It will need innovation from almost every engineering discipline. “Having great teams working now, it will cut the time needed to move from SPARC to ARC, and really unleash the creativity. And the thing MIT does so well is cut across disciplines,” says Whyte.

    “To address the climate crisis, the world needs to deploy existing clean energy solutions as widely and as quickly as possible, while at the same time developing new technologies — and our goal is that those new technologies will include fusion power,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “To make new climate solutions a reality, we need focused, sustained collaborations like the one between MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Delivering fusion power onto the grid is a monumental challenge, and the combined capabilities of these two organizations are what the challenge demands.”

    On a strategic level, climate change and the imperative need for widely implementable carbon-free energy have helped orient the PSFC team toward scalability. “Building one or 10 fusion plants doesn’t make a difference — we have to build thousands,” says Whyte. “The design decisions we make will impact the ability to do that down the road. The real enemy here is time, and we want to remove as many impediments as possible and commit to funding a new generation of scientific leaders. Those are critically important in a field with as much interdisciplinary integration as fusion.” More

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    Absent legislative victory, the president can still meet US climate goals

    The most recent United Nations climate change report indicates that without significant action to mitigate global warming, the extent and magnitude of climate impacts — from floods to droughts to the spread of disease — could outpace the world’s ability to adapt to them. The latest effort to introduce meaningful climate legislation in the United States Congress, the Build Back Better bill, has stalled. The climate package in that bill — $555 billion in funding for climate resilience and clean energy — aims to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the nation’s current Paris Agreement pledge. With prospects of passing a standalone climate package in the Senate far from assured, is there another pathway to fulfilling that pledge?

    Recent detailed legal analysis shows that there is at least one viable option for the United States to achieve the 2030 target without legislative action. Under Section 115 on International Air Pollution of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could assign emissions targets to the states that collectively meet the national goal. The president could simply issue an executive order to empower the EPA to do just that. But would that be prudent?

    A new study led by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change explores how, under a federally coordinated carbon dioxide emissions cap-and-trade program aligned with the U.S. Paris Agreement pledge and implemented through Section 115 of the Clean Air Act, the EPA might allocate emissions cuts among states. Recognizing that the Biden or any future administration considering this strategy would need to carefully weigh its benefits against its potential political risks, the study highlights the policy’s net economic benefits to the nation.

    The researchers calculate those net benefits by combining the estimated total cost of carbon dioxide emissions reduction under the policy with the corresponding estimated expenditures that would be avoided as a result of the policy’s implementation — expenditures on health care due to particulate air pollution, and on society at large due to climate impacts.

    Assessing three carbon dioxide emissions allocation strategies (each with legal precedent) for implementing Section 115 to return cap-and-trade program revenue to the states and distribute it to state residents on an equal per-capita basis, the study finds that at the national level, the economic net benefits are substantial, ranging from $70 to $150 billion in 2030. The results appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

    “Our findings not only show significant net gains to the U.S. economy under a national emissions policy implemented through the Clean Air Act’s Section 115,” says Mei Yuan, a research scientist at the MIT Joint Program and lead author of the study. “They also show the policy impact on consumer costs may differ across states depending on the choice of allocation strategy.”

    The national price on carbon needed to achieve the policy’s emissions target, as well as the policy’s ultimate cost to consumers, are substantially lower than those found in studies a decade earlier, although in line with other recent studies. The researchers speculate that this is largely due to ongoing expansion of ambitious state policies in the electricity sector and declining renewable energy costs. The policy is also progressive, consistent with earlier studies, in that equal lump-sum distribution of allowance revenue to state residents generally leads to net benefits to lower-income households. Regional disparities in consumer costs can be moderated by the allocation of allowances among states.

    State-by-state emissions estimates for the study are derived from MIT’s U.S. Regional Energy Policy model, with electricity sector detail of the Renewable Energy Development System model developed by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory; air quality benefits are estimated using U.S. EPA and other models; and the climate benefits estimate is based on the social cost of carbon, the U.S. federal government’s assessment of the economic damages that would result from emitting one additional ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (currently $51/ton, adjusted for inflation). 

    “In addition to illustrating the economic, health, and climate benefits of a Section 115 implementation, our study underscores the advantages of a policy that imposes a uniform carbon price across all economic sectors,” says John Reilly, former co-director of the MIT Joint Program and a study co-author. “A national carbon price would serve as a major incentive for all sectors to decarbonize.” More