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    Mining for the clean energy transition

    In a world powered increasingly by clean energy, drilling for oil and gas will gradually give way to digging for metals and minerals. Today, the “critical minerals” used to make electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, and grid-scale battery storage are facing soaring demand — and some acute bottlenecks as miners race to catch up.

    According to a report from the International Energy Agency, by 2040, the worldwide demand for copper is expected to roughly double; demand for nickel and cobalt will grow at least sixfold; and the world’s hunger for lithium could reach 40 times what we use today.

    “Society is looking to the clean energy transition as a way to solve the environmental and social harms of climate change,” says Scott Odell, a visiting scientist at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), where he helps run the ESI Mining, Environment, and Society Program, who is also a visiting assistant professor at George Washington University. “Yet mining the materials needed for that transition would also cause social and environmental impacts. So we need to look for ways to reduce our demand for minerals, while also improving current mining practices to minimize social and environmental impacts.”

    ESI recently hosted the inaugural MIT Conference on Mining, Environment, and Society to discuss how the clean energy transition may affect mining and the people and environments in mining areas. The conference convened representatives of mining companies, environmental and human rights groups, policymakers, and social and natural scientists to identify key concerns and possible collaborative solutions.

    “We can’t replace an abusive fossil fuel industry with an abusive mining industry that expands as we move through the energy transition,” said Jim Wormington, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a panel on the first day of the conference. “There’s a recognition from governments, civil society, and companies that this transition potentially has a really significant human rights and social cost, both in terms of emissions […] but also for communities and workers who are on the front lines of mining.”

    That focus on communities and workers was consistent throughout the three-day conference, as participants outlined the economic and social dimensions of standing up large numbers of new mines. Corporate mines can bring large influxes of government revenue and local investment, but the income is volatile and can leave policymakers and communities stranded when production declines or mineral prices fall. On the other hand, “artisanal” mining operations are an important source of critical minerals, but are hard to regulate and subject to abuses from brokers. And large reserves of minerals are found in conservation areas, regions with fragile ecosystems and experiencing water shortages that can be exacerbated by mining, in particular on Indigenous-controlled lands and other places where mine openings are deeply fraught.

    “One of the real triggers of conflict is a dissatisfaction with the current model of resource extraction,” said Jocelyn Fraser of the University of British Columbia in a panel discussion. “One that’s failed to support the long-term sustainable development of regions that host mining operations, and yet imposes significant local social and environmental impacts.”

    All these challenges point toward solutions in policy and in mining companies’ relationships with the communities where they work. Participants highlighted newer models of mining governance that can create better incentives for the ways mines operate — from full community ownership of mines to recognizing community rights to the benefits of mining to end-of-life planning for mines at the time they open.

    Many of the conference speakers also shared technological innovations that may help reduce mining challenges. Some operations are investing in desalination as alternative water sources in water-scarce regions; low-carbon alternatives are emerging to many of the fossil fuel-powered heavy machines that are mainstays of the industry; and work is being done to reclaim valuable minerals from mine tailings, helping to minimize both waste and the need to open new extraction sites.

    Increasingly, the mining industry itself is recognizing that reforms will allow it to thrive in a rapid clean-energy transition. “Decarbonization is really a profitability imperative,” said Kareemah Mohammed, managing director for sustainability services at the technology consultancy Accenture, on the conference’s second day. “It’s about securing a low-cost and steady supply of either minerals or metals, but it’s also doing so in an optimal way.”

    The three-day conference attracted over 350 attendees, from large mining companies, industry groups, consultancies, multilateral institutions, universities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government, and more. It was held entirely virtually, a choice that helped make the conference not only truly international — participants joined from over 27 countries on six continents — but also accessible to members of nonprofits and professionals in the developing world.

    “Many people are concerned about the environmental and social challenges of supplying the clean energy revolution, and we’d heard repeatedly that there wasn’t a forum for government, industry, academia, NGOs, and communities to all sit at the same table and explore collaborative solutions,” says Christopher Noble, ESI’s director of corporate engagement. “Convening, and researching best practices, are roles that universities can play. The conversations at this conference have generated valuable ideas and consensus to pursue three parallel programs: best-in-class models for community engagement, improving ESG metrics and their use, and civil-society contributions to government/industry relations. We are developing these programs to keep the momentum going.”

    The MIT Conference on Mining, Environment, and Society was funded, in part, by Accenture, as part of the MIT/Accenture Convergence Initiative. Additional funding was provided by the Inter-American Development Bank. More

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    Using game engines and “twins” to co-create stories of climate futures

    Imagine entering a 3D virtual story world that’s a digital twin of an existing physical space but also doubles as a vessel to dream up speculative climate stories and collective designs. Then, those imagined worlds are translated back into concrete plans for our physical spaces.

    Five multidisciplinary teams recently convened at MIT — virtually — for the inaugural WORLDING workshop. In a weeklong series of research and development gatherings, the teams met with MIT scientists, staff, fellows, students and graduates as well as other leading figures in the field. The theme of the gathering was “story, space, climate, and game engines.”

    “WORLDING illustrates the emergence of an entirely new field that fuses urban planning, climate science, real-time 3D engines, nonfiction storytelling, and speculative fiction,” says Katerina Cizek, lead designer of the workshop at Co-Creation Studio, MIT Open Documentary Lab. “And co-creation is at the core of this field that allows for collective, democratic, scientific and artistic processes.” The research workshop was organized by the studio in partnership with Unity Software.

    The WORLDING teams met with MIT scholars to discuss diverse domains, from the decolonization of board games, to urban planning as acts of democracy, to behind the scenes of a flagship MIT Climate Challenge project.

    “Climate is really a whole-world initiative,” said Noelle Selin, an MIT atmospheric chemistry professor, in a talk at WORLDING. Selin co-leads an MIT initiative that is digitally twinning the Earth to harness enormous volumes of data for improved climate projections and put these models into the hands of diverse communities and stakeholders.

    “Digital twinning” is a growth market for the game engine industry, in verticals such as manufacturing, architecture, finance, and medicine. “Digital twinning gives teams the power to ideate,” said Elizabeth Baron, a senior manager of enterprise solutions at Unity in her talk at WORLDING. “You can look at many things that maybe aren’t even possible to produce. But you’re the resource. Impact is very low, but the creativity aspect is very high.”

    That’s where the story and media experts come in. “Now, more than ever, we need to forge shared narratives about the world that we live in today and the world that we want to build for the future. Technology can help us visualize and communicate those worlds,” says Marina Psaros MCP ’06, head of sustainability at Unity, lead on WORLDING at Unity, and a graduate of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

    In his talk on the short history of WORLDING, media scholar William Uricchio, MIT professor of comparative media studies and founder of the Open Documentary Lab, suggested that story and space come together in these projects that create new ways of knowing. “Story is always a representation,” he says. “It’s got a fixity and coherence to it, and play is — and, I would argue, worlds are —  all about simulation. Simulation in the case of digital twinning is capable of generating countless stories. It’s play as a story-generator, but in the service of envisioning a pluralistic and malleable future.”

    Fixed dominant narratives and game mechanics that underpin board games have been historically violent and unjust, says MIT Game Lab scholar Mikael Jakkobson, who shared findings for his upcoming book on the subject with the cohort. He argues that board games are built on underlying ideas of  “exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. And, as it happens, those are also good ways of thinking about the mechanics of Western colonialism.”

    To counter these hegemonic mechanics and come up with new systems, community is vital, and urban planning is a discipline that plays a huge role in the translation of space, story, and democracy. Ceasar MacDowell, an MIT professor of the practice of civic design, told the WORLDING cohort that urban planning needs to expand its notion of authorship. He is working on systems (from his current position at the Media Lab) that not only engage the community in conversations but also prompt “the people who have been in conversations to actually make sense of them, do the meaning-making themselves, not to have external people interpret them.” These become dynamic layers of both representation and simulation that are not, as Uricchio suggests, fixed. 

    USAID Chief Climate Officer Gillian Calwell visited the group with both sharp warnings and warm enthusiasm: “When it comes to climate, this world isn’t working so well for us; we better start envisioning the new ones, and fast … We don’t have time to convince people that this is happening anymore. Nor do we need to. I think most of the world is having the hands-on, up-close-and-personal experience with the fact that these impacts are coming faster and more furiously than even the scientists had predicted. But one thing we do need help with on a more hopeful note is visualizing how the world could be different.”

    The WORLDING workshop is designed and inspired by the ideas and practices charted in the Co-Creation Studio’s new MIT Press book, “Collective Wisdom: Co-Creation Media for Equity and Justice,” which insists that “No one person, organization, or discipline can determine all the answers alone.”

    The five multidisciplinary teams in this first WORLDING cohort were diverse in approach, technology, and geography. For example, one is an Indigenous-led, land-based, site-specific digital installation that seeks to envision a future in which, once again, the great herds of buffalo walk freely. Another team is creating 3D-modeled biome kits of the water systems in the drought-stricken American West, animated by interviews and data from the communities living there. Yet another team is digitally twinning and then re-imagining a sustainable future in the year 2180 for a multi-player virtual reality game in a Yawanawà Shukuvena Village in the rainforests of Brazil.

    “While our workshop design was focused on developing and researching these incredible, interdisciplinary projects, we also hope that WORLDING can set an example for similar initiatives across global sectors where distances and varied expertise are not limitations but opportunities to learn from one another,” says Srushti Kamat, WORLDING producer and MIT creative media studies/writing grad.

    Most of the talks and presentations from the WORLDING workshop are available as archived videos at cocreationstudio.mit.edu/worlding-videos. More

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    A breakthrough on “loss and damage,” but also disappointment, at UN climate conference

    As the 2022 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27, stretched into its final hours on Saturday, Nov. 19, it was uncertain what kind of agreement might emerge from two weeks of intensive international negotiations.

    In the end, COP27 produced mixed results: on the one hand, a historic agreement for wealthy countries to compensate low-income countries for “loss and damage,” but on the other, limited progress on new plans for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

    “We need to drastically reduce emissions now — and this is an issue this COP did not address,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement at the conclusion of COP27. “A fund for loss and damage is essential — but it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map — or turns an entire African country to desert.”

    Throughout the two weeks of the conference, a delegation of MIT students, faculty, and staff was at the Sharm El-Sheikh International Convention Center to observe the negotiations, conduct and share research, participate in panel discussions, and forge new connections with researchers, policymakers, and advocates from around the world.

    Loss and damage

    A key issue coming in to COP27 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 27th time) was loss and damage: a term used by the U.N. to refer to harms caused by climate change — either through acute catastrophes like extreme weather events or slower-moving impacts like sea level rise — to which communities and countries are unable to adapt. 

    Ultimately, a deal on loss and damage proved to be COP27’s most prominent accomplishment. Negotiators reached an eleventh-hour agreement to “establish new funding arrangements for assisting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” 

    “Providing financial assistance to developing countries so they can better respond to climate-related loss and damage is not only a moral issue, but also a pragmatic one,” said Michael Mehling, deputy director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, who attended COP27 and participated in side events. “Future emissions growth will be squarely centered in the developing world, and offering support through different channels is key to building the trust needed for more robust global cooperation on mitigation.”

    Youssef Shaker, a graduate student in the MIT Technology and Policy Program and a research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative, attended the second week of the conference, where he followed the negotiations over loss and damage closely. 

    “While the creation of a fund is certainly an achievement,” Shaker said, “significant questions remain to be answered, such as the size of the funding available as well as which countries receive access to it.” A loss-and-damage fund that is not adequately funded, Shaker noted, “would not be an impactful outcome.” 

    The agreement on loss and damage created a new committee, made up of 24 country representatives, to “operationalize” the new funding arrangements, including identifying funding sources. The committee is tasked with delivering a set of recommendations at COP28, which will take place next year in Dubai.

    Advising the U.N. on net zero

    Though the decisions reached at COP27 did not include major new commitments on reducing emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, the transition to a clean global energy system was nevertheless a key topic of conversation throughout the conference.

    The Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition (CEET), an independent, international body of engineers and energy systems experts formed to provide advice to the U.N. on achieving net-zero emissions globally by 2050, convened for the first time at COP27. Jessika Trancik, a professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and a member of CEET, spoke on a U.N.-sponsored panel on solutions for the transition to clean energy.

    Trancik noted that the energy transition will look different in different regions of the world. “As engineers, we need to understand those local contexts and design solutions around those local contexts — that’s absolutely essential to support a rapid and equitable energy transition.”

    At the same time, Trancik noted that there is now a set of “low-cost, ready-to-scale tools” available to every region — tools that resulted from a globally competitive process of innovation, stimulated by public policies in different countries, that dramatically drove down the costs of technologies like solar energy and lithium-ion batteries. The key, Trancik said, is for regional transition strategies to “tap into global processes of innovation.”

    Reinventing climate adaptation

    Elfatih Eltahir, the H. M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate, traveled to COP27 to present plans for the Jameel Observatory Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet), one of the five projects selected in April 2022 as a flagship in MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges initiative. CREWSnet focuses on climate adaptation, the term for adapting to climate impacts that are unavoidable.

    The aim of CREWSnet, Eltahir told the audience during a panel discussion, is “nothing short of reinventing the process of climate change adaptation,” so that it is proactive rather than reactive; community-led; data-driven and evidence-based; and so that it integrates different climate risks, from heat waves to sea level rise, rather than treating them individually.

    “However, it’s easy to talk about these changes,” said Eltahir. “The real challenge, which we are now just launching and engaging in, is to demonstrate that on the ground.” Eltahir said that early demonstrations will happen in a couple of key locations, including southwest Bangladesh, where multiple climate risks — rising sea levels, increasing soil salinity, and intensifying heat waves and cyclones — are combining to threaten the area’s agricultural production.

    Building on COP26

    Some members of MIT’s delegation attended COP27 to advance efforts that had been formally announced at last year’s U.N. climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

    At an official U.N. side event co-organized by MIT on Nov. 11, Greg Sixt, the director of the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance led by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, provided an update on the alliance’s work since its launch at COP26.

    Food systems are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — and are increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts. The FACT Alliance works to better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders to make food systems (which include food production, consumption, and waste) more sustainable and resilient. 

    Sixt told the audience that the FACT Alliance now counts over 20 research and stakeholder institutions around the world among its members, but also collaborates with other institutions in an “open network model” to advance work in key areas — such as a new research project exploring how climate scenarios could affect global food supply chains.

    Marcela Angel, research program director for the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), helped convene a meeting at COP27 of the Afro-InterAmerican Forum on Climate Change, which also launched at COP26. The forum works with Afro-descendant leaders across the Americas to address significant environmental issues, including climate risks and biodiversity loss. 

    At the event — convened with the Colombian government and the nonprofit Conservation International — ESI brought together leaders from six countries in the Americas and presented recent work that estimates that there are over 178 million individuals who identify as Afro-descendant living in the Americas, in lands of global environmental importance. 

    “There is a significant overlap between biodiversity hot spots, protected areas, and areas of high Afro-descendant presence,” said Angel. “But the role and climate contributions of these communities is understudied, and often made invisible.”    

    Limiting methane emissions

    Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas: When released into the atmosphere, it immediately traps about 120 times more heat than carbon dioxide does. More than 150 countries have now signed the Global Methane Pledge, launched at COP26, which aims to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels.

    Sergey Paltsev, the deputy director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, gave the keynote address at a Nov. 17 event on methane, where he noted the importance of methane reductions from the oil and gas sector to meeting the 2030 goal.

    “The oil and gas sector is where methane emissions reductions could be achieved the fastest,” said Paltsev. “We also need to employ an integrated approach to address methane emissions in all sectors and all regions of the world because methane emissions reductions provide a near-term pathway to avoiding dangerous tipping points in the global climate system.”

    “Keep fighting relentlessly”

    Arina Khotimsky, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering and a co-president of the MIT Energy and Climate Club, attended the first week of COP27. She reflected on the experience in a social media post after returning home. 

    “COP will always have its haters. Is there greenwashing? Of course! Is everyone who should have a say in this process in the room? Not even close,” wrote Khotimsky. “So what does it take for COP to matter? It takes everyone who attended to not only put ‘climate’ on front-page news for two weeks, but to return home and keep fighting relentlessly against climate change. I know that I will.” More

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    Reversing the charge

    Owners of electric vehicles (EVs) are accustomed to plugging into charging stations at home and at work and filling up their batteries with electricity from the power grid. But someday soon, when these drivers plug in, their cars will also have the capacity to reverse the flow and send electrons back to the grid. As the number of EVs climbs, the fleet’s batteries could serve as a cost-effective, large-scale energy source, with potentially dramatic impacts on the energy transition, according to a new paper published by an MIT team in the journal Energy Advances.

    “At scale, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) can boost renewable energy growth, displacing the need for stationary energy storage and decreasing reliance on firm [always-on] generators, such as natural gas, that are traditionally used to balance wind and solar intermittency,” says Jim Owens, lead author and a doctoral student in the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering. Additional authors include Emre Gençer, a principal research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), and Ian Miller, a research specialist for MITEI at the time of the study.

    The group’s work is the first comprehensive, systems-based analysis of future power systems, drawing on a novel mix of computational models integrating such factors as carbon emission goals, variable renewable energy (VRE) generation, and costs of building energy storage, production, and transmission infrastructure.

    “We explored not just how EVs could provide service back to the grid — thinking of these vehicles almost like energy storage on wheels — but also the value of V2G applications to the entire energy system and if EVs could reduce the cost of decarbonizing the power system,” says Gençer. “The results were surprising; I personally didn’t believe we’d have so much potential here.”

    Displacing new infrastructure

    As the United States and other nations pursue stringent goals to limit carbon emissions, electrification of transportation has taken off, with the rate of EV adoption rapidly accelerating. (Some projections show EVs supplanting internal combustion vehicles over the next 30 years.) With the rise of emission-free driving, though, there will be increased demand for energy. “The challenge is ensuring both that there’s enough electricity to charge the vehicles and that this electricity is coming from renewable sources,” says Gençer.

    But solar and wind energy is intermittent. Without adequate backup for these sources, such as stationary energy storage facilities using lithium-ion batteries, for instance, or large-scale, natural gas- or hydrogen-fueled power plants, achieving clean energy goals will prove elusive. More vexing, costs for building the necessary new energy infrastructure runs to the hundreds of billions.

    This is precisely where V2G can play a critical, and welcome, role, the researchers reported. In their case study of a theoretical New England power system meeting strict carbon constraints, for instance, the team found that participation from just 13.9 percent of the region’s 8 million light-duty (passenger) EVs displaced 14.7 gigawatts of stationary energy storage. This added up to $700 million in savings — the anticipated costs of building new storage capacity.

    Their paper also described the role EV batteries could play at times of peak demand, such as hot summer days. “V2G technology has the ability to inject electricity back into the system to cover these episodes, so we don’t need to install or invest in additional natural gas turbines,” says Owens. “The way that EVs and V2G can influence the future of our power systems is one of the most exciting and novel aspects of our study.”

    Modeling power

    To investigate the impacts of V2G on their hypothetical New England power system, the researchers integrated their EV travel and V2G service models with two of MITEI’s existing modeling tools: the Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME) to project vehicle fleet and electricity demand growth, and GenX, which models the investment and operation costs of electricity generation, storage, and transmission systems. They incorporated such inputs as different EV participation rates, costs of generation for conventional and renewable power suppliers, charging infrastructure upgrades, travel demand for vehicles, changes in electricity demand, and EV battery costs.

    Their analysis found benefits from V2G applications in power systems (in terms of displacing energy storage and firm generation) at all levels of carbon emission restrictions, including one with no emissions caps at all. However, their models suggest that V2G delivers the greatest value to the power system when carbon constraints are most aggressive — at 10 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour load. Total system savings from V2G ranged from $183 million to $1,326 million, reflecting EV participation rates between 5 percent and 80 percent.

    “Our study has begun to uncover the inherent value V2G has for a future power system, demonstrating that there is a lot of money we can save that would otherwise be spent on storage and firm generation,” says Owens.

    Harnessing V2G

    For scientists seeking ways to decarbonize the economy, the vision of millions of EVs parked in garages or in office spaces and plugged into the grid for 90 percent of their operating lives proves an irresistible provocation. “There is all this storage sitting right there, a huge available capacity that will only grow, and it is wasted unless we take full advantage of it,” says Gençer.

    This is not a distant prospect. Startup companies are currently testing software that would allow two-way communication between EVs and grid operators or other entities. With the right algorithms, EVs would charge from and dispatch energy to the grid according to profiles tailored to each car owner’s needs, never depleting the battery and endangering a commute.

    “We don’t assume all vehicles will be available to send energy back to the grid at the same time, at 6 p.m. for instance, when most commuters return home in the early evening,” says Gençer. He believes that the vastly varied schedules of EV drivers will make enough battery power available to cover spikes in electricity use over an average 24-hour period. And there are other potential sources of battery power down the road, such as electric school buses that are employed only for short stints during the day and then sit idle.

    The MIT team acknowledges the challenges of V2G consumer buy-in. While EV owners relish a clean, green drive, they may not be as enthusiastic handing over access to their car’s battery to a utility or an aggregator working with power system operators. Policies and incentives would help.

    “Since you’re providing a service to the grid, much as solar panel users do, you could be paid for your participation, and paid at a premium when electricity prices are very high,” says Gençer.

    “People may not be willing to participate ’round the clock, but if we have blackout scenarios like in Texas last year, or hot-day congestion on transmission lines, maybe we can turn on these vehicles for 24 to 48 hours, sending energy back to the system,” adds Owens. “If there’s a power outage and people wave a bunch of money at you, you might be willing to talk.”

    “Basically, I think this comes back to all of us being in this together, right?” says Gençer. “As you contribute to society by giving this service to the grid, you will get the full benefit of reducing system costs, and also help to decarbonize the system faster and to a greater extent.”

    Actionable insights

    Owens, who is building his dissertation on V2G research, is now investigating the potential impact of heavy-duty electric vehicles in decarbonizing the power system. “The last-mile delivery trucks of companies like Amazon and FedEx are likely to be the earliest adopters of EVs,” Owen says. “They are appealing because they have regularly scheduled routes during the day and go back to the depot at night, which makes them very useful for providing electricity and balancing services in the power system.”

    Owens is committed to “providing insights that are actionable by system planners, operators, and to a certain extent, investors,” he says. His work might come into play in determining what kind of charging infrastructure should be built, and where.

    “Our analysis is really timely because the EV market has not yet been developed,” says Gençer. “This means we can share our insights with vehicle manufacturers and system operators — potentially influencing them to invest in V2G technologies, avoiding the costs of building utility-scale storage, and enabling the transition to a cleaner future. It’s a huge win, within our grasp.”

    The research for this study was funded by MITEI’s Future Energy Systems Center. More

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    Engineers solve a mystery on the path to smaller, lighter batteries

    A discovery by MIT researchers could finally unlock the door to the design of a new kind of rechargeable lithium battery that is more lightweight, compact, and safe than current versions, and that has been pursued by labs around the world for years.

    The key to this potential leap in battery technology is replacing the liquid electrolyte that sits between the positive and negative electrodes with a much thinner, lighter layer of solid ceramic material, and replacing one of the electrodes with solid lithium metal. This would greatly reduce the overall size and weight of the battery and remove the safety risk associated with liquid electrolytes, which are flammable. But that quest has been beset with one big problem: dendrites.

    Dendrites, whose name comes from the Latin for branches, are projections of metal that can build up on the lithium surface and penetrate into the solid electrolyte, eventually crossing from one electrode to the other and shorting out the battery cell. Researchers haven’t been able to agree on what gives rise to these metal filaments, nor has there been much progress on how to prevent them and thus make lightweight solid-state batteries a practical option.

    The new research, being published today in the journal Joule in a paper by MIT Professor Yet-Ming Chiang, graduate student Cole Fincher, and five others at MIT and Brown University, seems to resolve the question of what causes dendrite formation. It also shows how dendrites can be prevented from crossing through the electrolyte.

    Chiang says in the group’s earlier work, they made a “surprising and unexpected” finding, which was that the hard, solid electrolyte material used for a solid-state battery can be penetrated by lithium, which is a very soft metal, during the process of charging and discharging the battery, as ions of lithium move between the two sides.

    This shuttling back and forth of ions causes the volume of the electrodes to change. That inevitably causes stresses in the solid electrolyte, which has to remain fully in contact with both of the electrodes that it is sandwiched between. “To deposit this metal, there has to be an expansion of the volume because you’re adding new mass,” Chiang says. “So, there’s an increase in volume on the side of the cell where the lithium is being deposited. And if there are even microscopic flaws present, this will generate a pressure on those flaws that can cause cracking.”

    Those stresses, the team has now shown, cause the cracks that allow dendrites to form. The solution to the problem turns out to be more stress, applied in just the right direction and with the right amount of force.

    While previously, some researchers thought that dendrites formed by a purely electrochemical process, rather than a mechanical one, the team’s experiments demonstrate that it is mechanical stresses that cause the problem.

    The process of dendrite formation normally takes place deep within the opaque materials of the battery cell and cannot be observed directly, so Fincher developed a way of making thin cells using a transparent electrolyte, allowing the whole process to be directly seen and recorded. “You can see what happens when you put a compression on the system, and you can see whether or not the dendrites behave in a way that’s commensurate with a corrosion process or a fracture process,” he says.

    The team demonstrated that they could directly manipulate the growth of dendrites simply by applying and releasing pressure, causing the dendrites to zig and zag in perfect alignment with the direction of the force.

    Applying mechanical stresses to the solid electrolyte doesn’t eliminate the formation of dendrites, but it does control the direction of their growth. This means they can be directed to remain parallel to the two electrodes and prevented from ever crossing to the other side, and thus rendered harmless.

    In their tests, the researchers used pressure induced by bending the material, which was formed into a beam with a weight at one end. But they say that in practice, there could be many different ways of producing the needed stress. For example, the electrolyte could be made with two layers of material that have different amounts of thermal expansion, so that there is an inherent bending of the material, as is done in some thermostats.

    Another approach would be to “dope” the material with atoms that would become embedded in it, distorting it and leaving it in a permanently stressed state. This is the same method used to produce the super-hard glass used in the screens of smart phones and tablets, Chiang explains. And the amount of pressure needed is not extreme: The experiments showed that pressures of 150 to 200 megapascals were sufficient to stop the dendrites from crossing the electrolyte.

    The required pressure is “commensurate with stresses that are commonly induced in commercial film growth processes and many other manufacturing processes,” so should not be difficult to implement in practice, Fincher adds.

    In fact, a different kind of stress, called stack pressure, is often applied to battery cells, by essentially squishing the material in the direction perpendicular to the battery’s plates — somewhat like compressing a sandwich by putting a weight on top of it. It was thought that this might help prevent the layers from separating. But the experiments have now demonstrated that pressure in that direction actually exacerbates dendrite formation. “We showed that this type of stack pressure actually accelerates dendrite-induced failure,” Fincher says.

    What is needed instead is pressure along the plane of the plates, as if the sandwich were being squeezed from the sides. “What we have shown in this work is that when you apply a compressive force you can force the dendrites to travel in the direction of the compression,” Fincher says, and if that direction is along the plane of the plates, the dendrites “will never get to the other side.”

    That could finally make it practical to produce batteries using solid electrolyte and metallic lithium electrodes. Not only would these pack more energy into a given volume and weight, but they would eliminate the need for liquid electrolytes, which are flammable materials.

    Having demonstrated the basic principles involved, the team’s next step will be to try to apply these to the creation of a functional prototype battery, Chiang says, and then to figure out exactly what manufacturing processes would be needed to produce such batteries in quantity. Though they have filed for a patent, the researchers don’t plan to commercialize the system themselves, he says, as there are already companies working on the development of solid-state batteries. “I would say this is an understanding of failure modes in solid-state batteries that we believe the industry needs to be aware of and try to use in designing better products,” he says.

    The research team included Christos Athanasiou and Brian Sheldon at Brown University, and Colin Gilgenbach, Michael Wang, and W. Craig Carter at MIT. The work was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy. More

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    On batteries, teaching, and world peace

    Over his long career as an electrochemist and professor, Donald Sadoway has earned an impressive variety of honors, from being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012 to appearing on “The Colbert Report,” where he talked about “renewable energy and world peace,” according to Comedy Central.

    What does he personally consider to be his top achievements?

    “That’s easy,” he says immediately. “For teaching, it’s 3.091,” the MIT course on solid-state chemistry he led for some 18 years. An MIT core requirement, 3.091 is also one of the largest classes at the Institute. In 2003 it was the largest, with 630 students. Sadoway, who retires this year after 45 years in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, estimates that over the years he’s taught the course to some 10,000 undergraduates.

    A passion for teaching

    Along the way he turned the class into an MIT favorite, complete with music, art, and literature. “I brought in all that enrichment because I knew that 95 percent of the students in that room weren’t going to major in anything chemical and this might be the last class they’d take in the subject. But it’s a requirement. So they’re 18 years old, they’re very smart, and many of them are very bored. You have to find a hook [to reach them]. And I did.”

    In 1995, Sadoway was named a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, an honor that recognizes outstanding classroom teaching at the Institute. Among the communications in support of his nomination:

    “His contributions are enormous and the class is in rapt attention from beginning to end. His lectures are highly articulate yet animated and he has uncommon grace and style. I was awed by his ability to introduce playful and creative elements into a core lecture…”

    Bill Gates would agree. In the early 2000s Sadoway’s lectures were shared with the world through OpenCourseWare, the web-based publication of MIT course materials. Gates was so inspired by the lectures that he asked to meet with Sadoway to learn more about his research. (Sadoway initially ignored Gates’ email because he thought his account had been hacked by MIT pranksters.)

    Research breakthroughs

    Teaching is not Sadoway’s only passion. He’s also proud of his accomplishments in electrochemistry. The discipline that involves electron transfer reactions is key to everything from batteries to the primary extraction of metals like aluminum and magnesium. “It’s quite wide-ranging,” says the John F. Elliott Professor Emeritus of Materials Chemistry.

    Sadoway’s contributions include two battery breakthroughs. First came the liquid metal battery, which could enable the large-scale storage of renewable energy. “That represents a huge step forward in the transition to green energy,” said António Campinos, president of the European Patent Office, earlier this year when Sadoway won the 2022 European Inventor Award for the invention in the category for Non-European Patent Office Countries.

    On “The Colbert Report,” Sadoway alluded to that work when he told Stephen Colbert that electrochemistry is the key to world peace. Why? Because it could lead to a battery capable of storing energy from the sun when the sun doesn’t shine and otherwise make renewables an important part of the clean energy mix. And that in turn could “plummet the price of petroleum and depose dictators all over the world without one shot being fired,” he recently recalled.

    The liquid metal battery is the focus of Ambri, one of six companies based on Sadoway’s inventions. Bill Gates was the first funder of the company, which formed in 2010 and aims to install its first battery soon. That battery will store energy from a reported 500 megawatts of on-site renewable generation, the same output as a natural gas power plant.

    Then, in August of this year, Sadoway and colleagues published a paper in Nature about “one of the first new battery chemistries in 30 years,” Sadoway says. “I wanted to invent something that was better, much better,” than the expensive lithium-ion batteries used in, for example, today’s electric cars.

    That battery is the focus of Avanti, one of three Sadoway companies formed just last year. The other two are Pure Lithium, to commercialize his inventions related to that element, and Sadoway Labs. The latter, a nonprofit, is essentially “a space to try radical innovations. We’re gonna start working on wild ideas.”

    Another focus of Sadoway’s research: green steel. Steelmaking produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Enter Boston Metal, another Sadoway company. This one is developing a new approach to producing steel based on research begun some 25 years ago. Unlike the current technology for producing steel, the Boston Metal approach — molten oxide electrolysis — does not use the element at the root of steel’s problems: carbon. The principal byproduct of the new system? Oxygen.

    In 2012, Sadoway gave a TED talk to 2,000 people on the liquid metal battery. He believes that that talk, which has now been seen by almost 2.5 million people, led to the wider publicity of his work — and science overall — on “The Colbert Report” and elsewhere. “The moral here is that if you step out of your comfort zone, you might be surprised at what can happen,” he concludes.

    Colleagues’ reflections

    “I met Don in 2006 when I was working for the iron and steel industry in Europe on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the production of those materials,” says Antoine Allanore, professor of metallurgy, Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “He was the same Don Sadoway that you see in recordings of his lectures: very elegant, very charismatic, and passionate about the technical solutions and underlying science of the process we were all investigating; electrolysis. A few years later, when I decided to pursue an academic career, I contacted Don and became a postdoctoral associate in his lab. That ultimately led to my becoming an MIT professor. People don’t believe me, but before I came to MIT the only thing I knew about the Institute was that Noam Chomsky was there … and Don Sadoway. And I felt, that’s a great place to be. And I stayed because I saw the exceptional things that can be accomplished at MIT and Don is the perfect example of that.”

    “I had the joy of meeting Don when I first arrived on the MIT campus in 1994,” recalls Felice Frankel, research scientist in the MIT departments of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. “I didn’t have to talk him into the idea that researchers needed to take their images and graphics more seriously.  He got it — that it wasn’t just about pretty pictures. He was an important part of our five-year National Science Foundation project — Picturing to Learn — to bring that concept into the classroom. How lucky that was for me!”

    “Don has been a friend and mentor since we met in 1995 when I was an MIT senior,” says Luis Ortiz, co-founder and chief executive officer, Avanti Battery Co. “One story that is emblematic of Don’s insistence on excellence is from when he and I met with Bill Gates about the challenges in addressing climate change and how batteries could be the linchpin in solving them. I suggested that we create our presentation in PowerPoint [Microsoft software]. Don balked. He insisted that we present using Keynote on his MacBook Air, because ‘it looks so much better.’ I was incredulous that he wanted to walk into that venue exclusively using Apple products. Of course, he won the argument, but not without my admonition that there had better not be even a blip of an issue. In the meeting room, Microsoft’s former chief technology officer asked Don if he needed anything to hook up to the screen, ‘we have all those dongles.’ Don declined, but gave me that knowing look and whispered, ‘You see, they know, too.’ I ate my crow and we had a great long conversation without any issues.”

    “I remember when I first started working with Don on the liquid metal battery project at MIT, after I had chosen it as the topic for my master’s of engineering thesis,” adds David Bradwell, co-founder and chief technology officer, Ambri. “I was a wide-eyed graduate student, sitting in his office, amongst his art deco decorations, unique furniture, and historical and stylistic infographics, and from our first meeting, I could see Don’s passion for coming up with new and creative, yet practical scientific ideas, and for working on hard problems, in service of society. Don’s approaches always appear to be unconventional — wanting to stand out in a crowd, take the path less trodden, both based on his ideas, and his sense of style. It’s been an amazing journey working with him over the past decade-and-a-half, and I remain excited to see what other new, unconventional ideas, he can bring to this world.” More

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    Nonabah Lane, Navajo educator and environmental sustainability specialist with numerous ties to MIT, dies at 46

    Nonabah Lane, a Navajo educator and environmental sustainability specialist with numerous MIT ties to MIT, passed away in October. She was 46.

    Lane had recently been an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow; MIT Solve 2019 Indigenous Communities Fellow; Department of Urban Studies and Planning guest lecturer and community partner; community partner with the PKG Public Service Center, Terrascope, and D-Lab; and a speaker at this year’s MIT Energy Week.

    Lane was a passionate sustainability specialist with experience spearheading successful environmental civic science projects focused in agriculture, water science, and energy. Committed to mitigating water pollutants and environmental hazards in tribal communities, she held extensive knowledge of environmental policy and Indigenous water rights. 

    Lane’s clans were Ta’neezahnii (Tangled People), born for Tł’izíłání (Manygoats People), and her maternal grandfathers are the Kiiyaa’aanii (Towering House People), and paternal grandfathers are Bįįh Bitoo’nii (Deer Spring People).

    Lane was a member of the Navajo Nation, Nenahnezad Chapter. At Navajo Power, she worked as the lead developer for solar and energy storage projects to benefit tribal communities on the Navajo Nation and other tribal nations in New Mexico. Prior to joining Navajo Power, Lane co-founded Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, a farm that teaches Navajo culture through traditional farming and bilingual education. Lane also launched a campaign to partner with local Navajo schools and tribal colleges to create their own water-testing capabilities and translate data into information to local farmers.

    “I had the opportunity to collaborate closely with Nonabah on a range of initiatives she was championing on energy, food, justice, water, Indigenous leadership, youth STEM, and more. She was innovative, entrepreneurial, inclusive, heartfelt, and positively impacted MIT on every visit to campus. She articulated important things that needed saying and expanded people’s thinking constantly. We will all miss her insights and teamwork,” says Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, MIT Corporation life member; third U.S. chief technology officer and assistant to the president in the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and founder and CEO of shift7.

    In March 2019, Lane and her family — parents Gloria and Harry and brother Bruce — welcomed students and staff of the MIT Terrascope first-year learning community to their farm, where they taught unique, hands-on lessons about traditional Diné farming and spirituality. She then continued to collaborate with Terrascope, helping staff and students develop community-based work with partners in Navajo Nation. 

    Terrascope associate director and lecturer Ari Epstein says, “Nonabah was an inspiring person and a remarkable collaborator; she had a talent for connecting and communicating across disciplinary, organizational, and cultural differences, and she was generous with her expertise and knowledge. We will miss her very much.”

    Lane came to MIT in May 2019 for the MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellowship and Solve at MIT event, representing Navajo Ethno-Agriculture with her mother, Gloria Lane, and brother, Bruce Lane, and later serving as a Fellow Leadership Group member. 

    “Nonabah was an incredible individual who worked tirelessly to better all of her communities, whether it was back home on the Navajo Nation, here at MIT Solve, or supporting her family and friends,” says Alex Amouyel, executive director of MIT Solve. “More than that, Nonabah was a passionate mentor and caring friend of so many, carefully tending the next generation of Indigenous innovators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers. Her loss will be felt deeply by the MIT community, and her legacy of heartfelt service will not be forgotten.”

    She continued to be heavily involved across the MIT campus — named as a 2019 Media Lab Director’s Fellow, leading a workshop at the 2020 MIT Media Lab Festival of Learning on modernizing Navajo foods using traditional food science and cultural narrative, speaking at the 2022 MIT Energy Conference “Accelerating the Clean Energy Transition,” and taking part in the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) innovation weekly co-working groups for Covid-response related innovations. 

    “My CBA colleagues and I enjoyed working with Nonabah on rapid-prototyping for the Covid response, on expanding access to digital fabrication, and on ambitious proposals for connecting emerging technology with Indigenous knowledge,” says Professor Neil Gershenfeld, director, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms.

    Nonabah also guest lectured for the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning’s Indigenous Environmental Planning class in Spring 2022. Professors Lawrence Susskind and Gabriella Carolini and teaching assistant Dení López led the class in cooperation with Elizabeth Rule, Chickasaw Nation member and professor at American University. 

    Carolini shares, on behalf of Susskind and the class, “During this time, our teaching team and students from a broad range of fields at MIT had the deep honor of learning from and with the inimitable Nonabah Lane. Nonabah was a dedicated and critical partner to our class, representing in this instance Navajo Power — but of course, also so much more. Her broad experiences and knowledge — working with fellow Navajo members on energy and agriculture sovereignty, as well as in advancing entrepreneurship and innovation — reflected the urgency Nonabah saw in meeting the challenges and opportunities for sustainable and equitable futures in Navajo nation and beyond. She was a pure life force, running on all fires, and brought to our class a dedicated drive to educate, learn, and extend our reference points beyond current knowledge frontiers.” 

    Three MIT students — junior Isabella Gandara, Alexander Gerszten ’22, and Paul Picciano MS ’22 — who worked closely with Lane on a project with Navajo Power, recalled how she shared herself with them in so many ways, through her truly exceptional work ethic, stories about herself and her family, and the care and thought that she put into her ventures. They noted there was always something new to feel inspired by when in her presence. 

    “The PKG Public Service Center mourns the passing of Nonabah Lane. Navajo Ethno-Agriculture is a valued PKG Center partner that offers MIT undergraduate students the opportunity to support community-led projects with the Diné Community on Navajo Nation. Nonabah inspired students to examine broad social and technical issues that impact Indigenous communities in Navajo Nation and beyond, in many cases leaving an indelible mark on their personal and professional paths,” says Jill S. Bassett, associate dean and director of the PKG Public Service Center.

    Lane was a Sequoyah Fellow of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and remained actively engaged in the AISES community by mentoring young people interested in the fields of science, engineering, agriculture, and energy. Over the years, Lane collaborated with leaders across tribal lands and beyond on projects related to agriculture, energy, sustainable chemicals, and finance. Lane had an enormous positive impact on many through her accomplishments and also the countless meaningful connections she helped to form among people in diverse fields.

    Donations may be made to a memorial fund organized by Navajo Power, PBC in honor of Nonabah Lane, in support of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, the Native American nonprofit she co-founded and cared deeply for. More

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    3 Questions: Robert Stoner unpacks US climate and infrastructure laws

    This month, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) takes place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, bringing together governments, experts, journalists, industry, and civil society to discuss climate action to enable countries to collectively sharply limit anthropogenic climate change. As MIT Energy Initiative Deputy Director for Science and Technology Robert Stoner attends the conference, he takes a moment to speak about the climate and infrastructure laws enacted in the last year in the United States, and about the impact these laws can have in the global energy transition.

    Q: COP27 is now underway. Can you set the scene?

    A: There’s a lot of interest among vulnerable countries about compensation for the impacts climate change has had on them, or “loss and damage,” a topic that the United States refused to address last year at COP26, for fear of opening up a floodgate and leaving U.S. taxpayers exposed to unlimited liability for our past (and future) emissions. This is a crucial issue of fairness for developed countries — and, well, of acknowledging our common humanity. But in a sense, it’s also a sideshow, and addressing it won’t prevent a climate catastrophe — we really need to focus on mitigation. With the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the United States is now in a strong position to twist some arms. These laws are largely about subsidizing the deployment of low-carbon technologies — pretty much all of them. We’re going to do a lot in the United States in the next decade that will lead to dramatic cost reductions for these technologies and enable other countries with fewer resources to adopt them as well. It’s exactly the leadership role the United States has needed to assume. Now we have the opportunity to rally the rest of the world and get other countries to commit to more ambitious decarbonization goals, and to build practical programs that take advantage of the investable pathways we’re going to create for public and private actors.

    But that alone won’t get us there — money is still a huge problem, especially in emerging markets and developing countries. And I don’t think the institutions we rely on to help these countries fund infrastructure — energy and everything else — are adequately funded. Nor do these institutions have the right structures, incentives, and staffing to fund low-carbon development in these countries rapidly enough or on the necessary scale. I’m talking about the World Bank, for instance, but the other multilateral organizations have similar issues. I frankly don’t think the multilaterals can be reformed or sufficiently redirected on a short enough time frame. We definitely need new leadership for these organizations, and I think we probably need to quickly establish new multilaterals with new people, more money, and a clarity of purpose that is likely beyond what can be achieved incrementally. I don’t know if this is going to be an active public discussion at COP27, but I hope it takes place somewhere soon. Given the strong role our government plays in financing and selecting the leadership of these institutions, perhaps this is another opportunity for the United States to demonstrate courage and leadership.

    Q: What “investable pathways” are you talking about?

    A: Well, the pathways we’re implicitly trying to pursue with the Infrastructure Act and IRA are pretty clear, and I’ll come back to them. But first let me describe the landscape: There are three main sources of demand for energy in the economy — industry (meaning chemical production, fuel for electricity generation, cement production, materials and manufacturing, and so on), transportation (cars, trucks, ships, planes, and trains), and buildings (for heating and cooling, mostly). That’s about it, and these three sectors account for 75 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions. So the pathways are all about how to decarbonize these three end-use sectors. There are a lot of technologies — some that exist, some that don’t — that will have to be brought to bear. And so it can be a little overwhelming to try to imagine how it will all transpire, but it’s pretty clear at a high level what our options are:

    First, generate a lot of low-carbon electricity and electrify as many industrial processes, vehicles, and building heating systems as we can.
    Second, develop and deploy at massive scale technologies that can capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks, or the air, and put it somewhere that it can never escape from — in other words, carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS.
    Third, for end uses like aviation that really need to use fuels because of their extraordinary energy density, develop low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels.
    And fourth is energy efficiency across the board — but I don’t really count that as a separate pathway per se.
    So, by “investable pathways” I mean specific ways to pursue these options that will attract investors. What the Infrastructure Act and the IRA do is deploy carrots (in the form of subsidies) in a variety of ways to close the gap between what it costs to deploy technologies like CCS that aren’t yet at a commercial stage because they’re immature, and what energy markets will tolerate. A similar situation occurs for low-carbon production of hydrogen, one of the leading low-carbon fuel candidates. We can make it by splitting water with electricity (electrolysis), but that costs too much with present-day technology; or we can make it more cheaply by separating it from methane (which is what natural gas mainly is), but that creates CO2 that has to be transported and sequestered somewhere. And then we have to store the hydrogen until we’re ready to use it, and transport it by pipeline to the industrial facilities where it will be used. That requires infrastructure that doesn’t exist — pipelines, compression stations, big tanks! Come to think of it, the demand for all that hydrogen doesn’t exist either — at least not if industry has to pay what it actually costs.

    So, one very important thing these new acts do is subsidize production of hydrogen in various ways — and subsidize the creation of a CCS industry. The other thing they do is subsidize the deployment at enormous scale of low-carbon energy technologies. Some of them are already pretty cheap, like solar and wind, but they need to be supported by a lot of storage on the grid (which we don’t yet have) and by other sorts of grid infrastructure that, again, don’t exist. So, they now get subsidized, too, along with other carbon-free and low-carbon generation technologies — basically all of them. The idea is that by stimulating at-scale deployment of all these established and emerging technologies, and funding demonstrations of novel infrastructure — effectively lowering the cost of supply of low-carbon energy in the form of electricity and fuels — we will draw out the private sector to build out much more of the connective infrastructure and invest in new industrial processes, new home heating systems, and low-carbon transportation. This subsidized build-out will take place over a decade and then phase out as costs fall — hopefully, leaving the foundation for a thriving low-carbon energy economy in its wake, along with crucial technologies and knowledge that will benefit the whole world.

    Q: Is all of the federal investment in energy infrastructure in the United States relevant to the energy crisis in Europe right now?

    A: Not in a direct way — Europe is a near-term catastrophe with a long-term challenge that is in many ways more difficult than ours because Europe doesn’t have the level of primary energy resources like oil and gas that we have in abundance. Energy costs more in Europe, especially absent Russian pipelines. In a way, the narrowing of Europe’s options creates an impetus to invest in low-carbon technologies sooner than otherwise. The result either way will be expensive energy and quite a lot of economic suffering for years. The near-term challenge is to protect people from high energy prices. The big spikes in electricity prices we see now are driven by the natural gas market disruption, which will eventually dissipate as new sources of electricity come online (Sweden, for example, just announced a plan to develop new nuclear, and we’re seeing other countries like Germany soften their stance on nuclear) — and gas markets will sort themselves out. Meanwhile governments are trying to shield their people with electricity price caps and other subsidies, but that’s enormously burdensome.

    The EU recently announced gas price caps for imported gas to try to eliminate price-gouging by importers and reduce the subsidy burden. That may help to lower downstream prices, or it may make matters worse by reducing the flow of gas into the EU and fueling scarcity pricing, and ultimately adding to the subsidy burden. A lot people are quite reasonably suggesting that if electricity prices are subject to crazy behavior in gas markets, then why not disconnect from the grid and self-generate? Wouldn’t that also help reduce demand for gas overall and also reduce CO2 emissions? It would. But it’s expensive to put solar panels on your roof and batteries in your basement — so for those rich enough to do this, it would lead to higher average electricity costs that would live on far into the future, even when grid prices eventually come down.

    So, an interesting idea is taking hold, with considerable encouragement from national governments — the idea of “energy communities,” basically, towns or cities that encourage local firms and homeowners to install solar and batteries, and make some sort of business arrangement with the local utility to allow the community to disconnect from the national grid at times of high prices and self-supply — in other words, use the utility’s wires to sell locally generated power locally. It’s interesting to think about — it takes less battery storage to handle the intermittency of solar when you have a lot of generators and consumers, so forming a community helps lower costs, and with a good deal from the utility for using their wires, it might not be that much more expensive. And of course, when the national grid is working well and prices are normal, the community would reconnect and buy power cheaply, while selling back its self-generated power to the grid. There are also potentially important social benefits that might accrue in these energy communities, too. It’s not a dumb idea, and we’ll see some interesting experimentation in this area in the coming years — as usual, the Germans are enthusiastic! More