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Rethinking Power

MIT’s top energy researcher gives the lowdown on investigations of sustainability, renewable energy and global warming.

This summer David Marks simply isn’t getting enough sleep. In May, the 62-year-old engineering professor became director of MIT’s new Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. Bringing together faculty and staff from 14 departments, the new lab will weld global interdisciplinary teams to study energy and environmental issues from innovative angles.

In between hectic trips to Texas and Norway, Marks recently sat down with reporter Paroma Basu and staff editor Alan Leo to talk about the new lab, ongoing energy concerns and his undying love for cars. Here’s an edited version.

TR: Why did MIT bring together the energy and environment labs?

Marks: The energy lab was started in 1973 during the oil crisis when it was perceived that there was an energy supply problem. Well, it’s not a supply problem at all, but a use problem. There’s lots of energy out there, but how do you extract it, how do you use it? Particularly, how do you use it more efficiently?

Today, as we’re more and more concerned about CO2 and the impacts of using petroleum-based fuels, what are the alternatives or what are ways you drive down use? There are a lot of social concerns.

This lab is really bringing together at MIT the first group of people who are thinking about cross-disciplinary activities [on these issues].

TR: What new projects will you launch?

Marks: We just took on a very large project for the World Business Council on sustainable mobility. Everyone focuses on the car and how terrible it is. Well, we use just as much energy to move freight.

You may say, “I live in Cambridge so I don’t need a car.” But you still need those strawberries from someplace like Kenya, and they come to you by plane. And the energy cost of that is small compared to getting them from the supermarket to your house. Take the example of cornflakes.

TR: Okay, what about cornflakes?

Marks: [Consider] a ton of boxes and how much it costs to bring it from Nabisco to a distributor here. And then how much it costs for the distributor to get it to the local Stop-and-Shop. Whether that’s a dollar a gallon or five dollars a gallon for gasoline, the difference is small compared to the value of the cornflakes.

But a ton of cornflakes is 2,000 boxes. How do 2,000 boxes get to 2,000 homes? Nobody goes to the market just for one box of cornflakes, but assume that’s five percent of a typical grocery shopping. Then take a look at how much energy is spent just getting it the last mile and a half home. It is ten times what it is to get it to the store. No one calculates the cost of getting it home.

TR: Is there a solution to that last mile?

Marks: When one talks about sustainable mobility, there’s the probability that people will tend to live more and more in urban areas. But current urban densities are low, which is kind of counterintuitive. What it means is that people are using their vehicles-people are getting distributed.

How are you going to hold that back? By thinking about pricing schemes, renewable fuels, better fuel economy.

Basically, you can never impose a public system on something that is so dispersed. And we’re watching before our eyes what’s happening in a frightening way in the developing world. They’re trying to do their infrastructure development in 10 years rather than 80.

In freight, though, you have a real chance to make some differences. There’s a huge crunch coming between vehicle freight and cars competing for the same infrastructure. If you had a separate freight infrastructure for trucks, they’d be bigger, they’d move at a different speed, they might begin to move robotically, and they would even begin to look like railroads. So freight has huge opportunities for improvement-but everyone’s focusing on the vehicle problem.

Carbon mediation-ways to use less carbon or ways to sequester CO2-is another sensitive issue.

And there’s a whole set of new energy technologies that will make conservation more possible. Most of the studies, though, suggest that it’ll take a while for the new alternative energies to come in.

TR: What attracted you to this position as lab director?

Marks: I’ve been here 33 years. I’m a water engineer, and I’m well-known in my disciplinary field. But I’ve always felt that education and research here were missing the point if there wasn’t something that was interdisciplinary. Timing, marketing decisions, alliances-they can be more important than technologies. So part of the reason for having a laboratory like this is to get a set of students who communicate and work in teams.

TR: What’s an example of a project in the new lab that crosses disciplinary lines?

Marks: Almost every one of them. The Sloan automotive lab actually sits in the energy lab and is administered there. I wouldn’t be surprised in the future to see us doing a big program on fuel cells. And most of that is technology.

But if you’re going to do a big study on fuel cells, you have to ask yourself a big technology-assessment question: fuel cells compared to what? How do you build a fuel cell that will come on line at the right time and be competitive with other technologies? If I come up with the best fuel cell in the world, can I sell it? That’s where this combination of environment people and energy people will be successful.

TR: Is there research you would like to see that doesn’t get funding?

Marks: Alternative fuels. Lots of people are interested but not doing anything because they can’t raise the funding. Any funding happened 20 years ago. The federal government has a Renewables Lab in Colorado that just got its funding cut by 35 percent.

A lot of the trouble with renewable resources is that they’ve been five years away for the last 30 years. As long as oil is around and pricing is cheap, they’re in the same position as alternative engines like fuel cells.

TR: Will you continue to seek out research in developing countries?

Marks: Sustainability is really a big problem. The mega-cities of the developing world are a perpetual tinderbox, especially with the rapid immigration of poor people into the cities. People want basic services-education, health care, water, clean air, the ability to get to work, jobs. I think those cities will be overwhelmed-the Jakartas, Bangkoks and Beijings. The future is not pretty because they simply can’t keep up.

TR: Are people taking the right lessons out of the energy crisis in California?

Marks: There’s enough blame to go all around. You don’t develop a free market for wholesale but then cap resale at retail prices.

When someone says, “What new technologies would solve California’s existing problem?”, you don’t even have to think about this. There is already a set of existing technologies, like time-of-day meters, which would give a Californian the ability to know how much electricity will cost any time they want to do something. You might decide to buy a dryer with a timer, for example, and then dry your clothes at 2:30 in the morning when energy is a lot cheaper.

The lab [will do] a big project on distributed power and less reliance on the grid. Then you can really start talking about solar power and other things; you just go to the grid when you need power.

There are technology solutions, but there aren’t necessarily better energy-supply solutions. Building 20 million more power plants, like [Vice President] Cheney said, is not the right idea. Instead, if you make 20 million small, individual, distributed and owner-controlled plants, and loosely connect them to the grid, someday you’ll have consumers making decisions. This is not rocket science or something that needs new technology to appear. You can do this today, within three to five years.

TR: What’s your take on Kyoto?

Marks: Nobody’s in love with the actual Kyoto document. There are so many unanswered questions, so many uncertainties. Bush did the right thing [refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol] for the wrong reasons.

I would have liked to hear Bush say what Gore said: “We are committed to the process, and we’re going to start looking for ways to do it.” But industry doesn’t want to hear that.

This is America, the most confident country in the world, especially about technology. If you look at auto emissions, for instance, every target that’s been set has been met better, cheaper and faster than the guidelines. Emissions technology is getting so much better all the time, and we’re not confident about a five-percent decrease [as mandated by the Kyoto Protocol] in energy use?

When you set some goals, all kinds of things can happen. But industry doesn’t like it because they don’t know who’s going to win. They know that they’ll get to the goal, but they don’t know who will get there first. This creates incredible uncertainty for the individual organization.

[The solution] is not the one product anymore, it’s the whole pipeline of products. The reason cars are doing so well is the microprocessor, which no one really anticipated, and now these cars are more electronic than mechanical. No one anticipated such technological changes. So again, anything can happen.

TR: We’ve been talking a lot about cars.

Marks: Oh, I love cars.

TR: What do you drive?

Marks: I’m a car collector. I have two very old cars that I keep in the country. I don’t drive them very much, but they’re gorgeous. One of them is a 8.2 liter 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible with 50,000 miles on it. It weighs 5,000 pounds, it’s 19 feet long. It’s glorious red, and it’s mine! But I drive it only 500 miles a year.

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