Since President Trump declared the USA's intention to leave the Paris agreement, the global debate around climate change has intensified. What aspects of energy research are best positioned to help tackle global warming?

Solar energy, nuclear power, and bioenergy are among the top priorities. These are complemented by technologies such as storage, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and smarter grid technologies.

CCS is important, because while the world may not be able to quickly wean itself off fossil fuel energy resources within the next several decades, we need to eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the near term.

This is where carbon pricing could have a huge impact. Unfortunately, it's cheaper to emit CO2 than it is to capture it. So, we need a policy to change that calculation. The most straightforward solution is for governments to enact policies that put a price on carbon globally.

That would drive the kind of investment that we need for large-scale development of CCS and other technologies. As it is, without a price on carbon, R&D on this technology is moving too slowly.

How does the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative (MITEI), which you direct, work with companies like Shell and others in the energy industry? What is the value of that relationship?

MIT, like any university, produces two main things: people and knowledge. The students who graduate from MIT are leaders and innovators in industry, policy, and academia.

The knowledge that comes from our research programmes provides fundamental understanding crucial to addressing specific technological needs, as well as analysis to inform decision-makers and the public. 

The Energy Initiative was developed with industry collaboration in mind, for two reasons.

One, industry can help us understand the kinds of problems that will have the biggest impact on delivering lower-carbon energy. That in turn allows us to better target our research.

Two, the energy industry - being a global, multitrillion dollar-per-year enterprise - gives us a unique opportunity to take the technologies that come out of research programmes and commercialise them at scale.

More than 60 start-ups have emerged from MIT in the energy space since MITEI launched ten years ago, many of which originated from collaboration with industry.

This is a very expensive proposition, and so you need partners who have both the global reach and financial wherewithal to make that happen.

What areas of energy research are the most exciting to you?

A potential game-changer is solar fuels. This is the idea of taking a zero-carbon energy source - such as excess solar energy in the middle of the day - and using that plus CO2 and water to effectively make a hydrocarbon of your choice.

There's a lot of work going into this area, and there have been significant advances, even if we're still far away from commercially-viable technologies.

But the key will be finding a way to store that energy so that it's available on demand. Fortunately, there is a great deal of focus across the research community on innovating to store energy for a variety of needs.

We have battery solutions that are likely to be adequate for short-to-moderate timescales, such as storing energy from midday to use in the evening. Those however still need to become cheaper.

Time-shifting - that is, storing energy from the time it’s harvested to the time it’s used - is very important in enabling an intermittent resource like solar to match with consumer electricity demand.

But, looking ahead, our most significant storage challenge is going to be seasonal, or what I call "drought-scale storage”.

That is, do we have ways to store the energy from summer to get us through winter in the Northern Hemisphere? And how do we go from good years when we have an abundance of a backup resource like hydropower, versus years where we have droughts and a lack of significant rainfall, meaning an absence of hydropower?

In the developed world there is an abundance of energy and infrastructure, and the problem is containing emissions. But how does the picture change when we start talking about energy in the developing world?

That, to me, is an energy equity question. Do all people have adequate access to energy, which is so important to standard of living? The answer, of course, is no.

We have about 1.2 billion people in the world who do not have electricity, and they're primarily in the developing world.

We need to figure out what energy technologies would work best for those populations. In countries like India, which has large coal resources, the challenge is how to help expand energy resources without significant carbon emissions or other forms of pollution that have serious health impacts.

I think market forces, policies, and public opinion are having an impact as we see countries like India's deciding to cancel plans to build new coal-fired power plants for the near term and move toward low-cost solar, wind, and natural gas.

India is growing its economies while using much less coal than probably anticipated. Many countries in the developing world cannot afford some of the solutions being proposed in the developed world, but on the other hand they may not be tied to the same infrastructures we have, which were designed entirely around fossil fuels.

So it's up to us to help those countries not only get access to energy but to start with low-carbon energy.

Robert Armstrong in conversation with Shell’s Harry Brekelmans
Robert Armstrong (left) in conversation with Shell’s Harry Brekelmans

In September 2017 MIT hosted a talk with Shell’s Project and Technology Director Harry Brekelmans. It examined the question: ‘If you had a billion dollars for energy related R&D, where would you spend it?’ What would be your answer?

I put solar at the top of the renewables category. It is widely distributed globally, and the sheer quantity of the resource is far in excess of what we need to power the planet.

The challenge is harvesting that energy efficiently and addressing issues of intermittency so that our electric grids have power at night and on cloudy days.

This leads to another area that deserves R&D: storage. Storage is needed not only for solar but also for wind. We have come a long way in developing batteries, but they need to be cheaper. They need to have a higher energy density and be capable of more power. So R&D in this area could have a big impact on the future of energy.

Finally, when you talk about our electric power system, it's fundamentally about understanding how all the traditional energy sources fit with the emerging sources. How do we integrate resources like nuclear or natural gas with wind, with solar and with hydropower resources?

There is a place for R&D to address these problems, especially as the energy industry evolves in the digital era, where you have sensors providing an abundance of data along with IT methods for analysing that data.

But beyond any single target for investment, what is most critical is that these investments happen soon. It is only through a sense of urgency that the technologies that emerge from them can get to work on mitigating climate change and providing energy to people who don't have it today.


Robert Armstrong spoke to Thomas Francis

Robert Armstrong was in conversation with Shell’s P&T Director Harry Brekelmans on September 6 2017. Watch the talk in full here. Shell is a member of - and provides funding to - the MIT Energy Initiative. 

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