Thursday, May 3, 2012

MIT Clean Energy Show

We attended MIT's Clean Energy Prize show on Monday, April 30th.  It was a blast.  The guy who won, we figured he had no chance.  Actually he'd already been told beforehand that his company had netted at least a $20,000 prize.  So he was in a great mood, dealing with the hoy peloi the same way we would have, toying with them and having fun.  That company is called Radiator Labs.  It operates in the green energy sweet spot -- conservation.  The guy went to Columbia University in New York City, lived in an old dorm, and  was fed up with the heating system.  Steam.  Tremendous solution.  Wireless connections to every radiator in the building.  Plus a pile of software behind the scene.  Could save tons of money.  He says New York City wastes $445 million a year on steam.  That sounds low.

There were three categories to the competition.  Conservation, obviously.  Renewables, which basically focus on delivering low cost solutions to Third World customers.  Our favorite was Solar Tri-Gen, which figured out a way to power rural villages in Africa using a simple solar technology that the villagers could manufacture and repair themselves.  (They lost that sectional to a bunch of Indians who rented out a solar generator to shopkeepers.)  And Deployment, which included SolidEnergy, probably the best company in the show.  SolidEnergy could not win the grand prize because they won last month in a different competition.  But the start-up took home $20,000 anyway as a category champ.  SolidEnergy says it has a new battery that is safer than existing electric car designs, expands driving range by 300%, and lowers cost.  Radiator Labs won this show's $200,000 grand prize. 

The biggest downer was the old hippie they brought out as the principal speaker.  That was Bill Joy, who invented Java and bunch of other things when he was younger.  Now he's a vulture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins in California focusing on green energy.  Right off the bat he put down one of MIT's current initiatives, which we totally agree with, to make natural gas a bridge to a green energy future.  MIT's theory is that natural gas delivers 50% fewer carbon emissions than coal and oil, it's cheaper than coal and oil, and that by rolling it out now the world could cut CO-2 substantially and continue to operate.  Bill Joy wants more government subsidies of uneconomic technologies like biomass and wind.  Fortunately for us it looks like the MIT approach may prevail.  CO-2 emissions should slow in the short run by converting to natural gas.  Then  the killer apps will come on line when they're ready.

Solar wasn't a big factor at this show.  That's because it's 1-2 years away from grid parity with existing technology, and yesterday's start-ups are knocking at the door with a host of improvements.  That will be the first killer app.  Natural gas prices are so low right now that solar's day in the sun has been pushed out again.  New generating capacity, they're using natural gas instead of solar or coal.  But natural gas costs $4.00 per mcf to produce, and it's selling for $2.25 today due to oversupply conditions.  That price will revert to $4.00 before long as supply and demand return to equilibrium.  When that happens solar should be golden. 

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