Put on a blindfold, throw a dart at a calendar, and you’ll probably pierce a date on which an energy conference is being held somewhere around the world.
But while many are more lavishly underwritten, few can match the unbridled enthusiasm of the annual energy fête — entirely organized by students — at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Now in its sixth year, the M.I.T. Energy Conference has established itself as a popular destination for industry wonks, venture capitalists and freelance energy geeks looking for a glimpse into how techno-visionaries hope to solve a daunting problem: providing energy for the planet’s six billion people reliably, affordably and, ideally, without making a mess.
Little pessimism was on display at Friday night’s “Energy Showcase.”
Against an ambient backdrop of bubbly live jazz and $9 beers, StranWind’s vertical axis turbine, designed for residential or commercial customers, turned a lot of heads — even if Clark Gellings, a vice president for technology at the Electric Power Research Institute, dismissed small-scale wind as uneconomical during a Grid 101 session earlier in the day.
Inside the ballroom of the Westin Hotel in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, the inflatable contraption towered somewhat cartoonishly above the cheerful conference-goers. In practice, though, Altaeros’s device — a giant helium-filled shroud in the shape of a jet engine with a conventional wind turbine inside — would be tethered like a kite up to 2,000 feet in the air, accessing stronger and more sustained winds while overcoming some of the challenges of land and sea-based wind power.
Nearby, Tyler Bronder, a senior software engineer for OPower, used an iPad to explain the Virginia-based company’s suite of consumer-facing smart-grid applications to a wine-sipping patron. “I’m not lazy,” his bright blue T-shirt explained. “I’m energy efficient.”
Looking a bit lonely against the back wall of the ballroom, the oil and gas services company Schlumberger highlighted the technologies behind shale gas exploration and extraction. Chunks of shale rock and other geologic specimens were on display, while Abigail Matteson, an oilfield services manager, fielded the occasional question about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the natural gas industry in general — which has earned a reputation for water pollution.
The fracking, Ms. Matteson explained to a small group, happens well below the water table, so the hazards there are minimal — a position long held by the industry. Potential problems do exist with fluid and wastewater handling at the surface, Ms. Matteson conceded, adding that the industry is working to address those.
Meanwhile, just outside the main ballroom, XL Hybrids, another start-up with M.I.T. roots, slipped lights and mirrors under the jacked-up backside of a black sedan, so visitors could admire its work. The company converts fleet vehicles — chiefly late-model Lincoln Town Cars, Ford Crown Victorias, and Mercury Grand Marquis — into hybrid electrics by adding regenerative braking technology.
Improvements in solar cells, a hydrokinetic turbine for small streams and canals, and a variety of innovative energy storage ideas were among the dozens of other displays — including a proposal for giant concrete spherical containers that could act as batteries for excess power.
Gokhan Dundar, a first-year masters student at M.I.T., explained that the 30-meter spheres would be relatively cheap to make and could take advantage of pressure differentials at certain ocean depths.
Excess power from, say, an offshore wind facility — or even a land-based power plant — could be used to pump water out of the spheres, which sit on the ocean floor. When that power is needed later, a valve would allow high-pressure ocean water to flow back in, spin a turbine inside and send the juice to shore.
“I don’t have a business card,” Mr. Dundar, who is from Turkey, said apologetically. “But if you e-mail me I can send you all the details.”
Angel investors, meet Mr. Dundar.
By TOM ZELLER JR./NYT