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Maggie Koerth-Baker
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy.
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Henry Jacoby
Henry Jacoby is an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, where he helps lead MIT’s research and analysis of national climate policies and the structure of the international climate regime.
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American energy innovations
Reporter Curt Nickisch takes us to Cambridge, Massachusetts -- a U.S. energy innovation hub -- to learn about the latest developments in solar and nuclear power.
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Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.

Host Madeline Brand: Even with these concerns, one of the benefits of the natural gas boom, says MIT's Professor Jacoby, is that it “builds a bridge to the future.” It gives American industry time, say 15 to 20 years, to develop renewable technologies before gas supplies run short.  

Not just wind and solar, but all renewables, such as biomass, hydropower, and geothermal.  

That idea is supported by a recent analysis by Citigroup.

The study predicts that the cost of natural gas will rise as the supply diminishes. And, in the meantime, renewables are expected to become cheaper.

So, electric utilities will actually need renewables to supplement demand in the future. That might reassure the renewable energy industry in the long-term, but for now, it’s a bit tough for them. Curt Nickish reports.

Curt Nickisch: Evergreen Solar started out the picture of success with a big ribbon cutting celebration with the Massachusetts governor. Company executives showed off their new manufacturing plant with 700 high-paying jobs. Inside, workers made solar cells, and put them into panels like those you see on buildings.

Three years later, Evergreen Solar went bankrupt. It couldn’t compete with China, a country that was doing for solar what it did for tennis shoes – drive down the cost. Panel prices had plummeted.

Two weeks after that, another solar company went bankrupt, too. Solyndra, in California. Those highly-publicized failures came at the same time fracking technology was fueling a boom in American natural gas production.

“I think this is a particularly dangerous point in time for American alternative energy entrepreneurs and for the future of our alternative energy industry here,” says Rob Day, a venture capitalist at a firm called Black Coral Capital.   

The firm is based in Boston to keep tabs on all the new energy technologies coming out of research universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Day says the money to fund these ideas is drying up thanks to fracking.

“Everybody sees the fracking boom here in the United States and, as I believe as well, the likelihood of a long period of relatively low natural gas prices, leading to relatively low electricity prices, and yeah, it is absolutely driving investors out of the water.”

That’s making it harder for many promising clean energy companies to get off the ground. 

And, getting something off the ground is exactly what Keystone Tower Systems is working on. The company’s chief technology officer Eric Smith shows off a metal pipe.

It’s a prototype of his company’s new manufacturing process that makes it cheaper to build taller wind turbines.

Taller wind farms reach stronger winds that produce exponentially more energy. So at the same time fracking technology is driving down the price of natural gas, companies like Keystone have been finding ways to make wind power cheaper, too. Smith says the cost of wind has been falling at the same rate as natural gas prices in the United States: “So last year, 2012, was the first year in which we installed more megawatts of wind turbines than we installed megawatts of natural gas plants.”

But, fracking is getting all the attention. Smith says it’s gotten very hard to find private investors. For now, Keystone is funding itself with federal grants. He’s afraid those could dry up, too, if policy makers get tunnel vision: “Yeah, I’m not worried about being able to continue to sell wind turbines in the U.S. I have much bigger fears about getting consistent federal support for wind energy than I am about cost pressure from natural gas.” 

It’s not just wind and solar, it’s also nuclear power.

In a conference room at the Cambridge Innovation Center, an incubator for tech companies, Leslie Dewan is meeting with her startup co-founders.

Dewan is a nuclear scientist at MIT. She and another doctoral student, Mark Massie, are refining a different way to make nuclear power. A new kind of smaller, cheaper, and safer reactor that can run on nuclear waste alone. They say with their technology, there’s enough energy left in spent fuel rods to power the world for decades. Dewan and Massie presented their idea at a TEDx conference in Boston: “So you’re powering the world for 72 years, while simultaneously getting rid of all of its nuclear waste. So there’s a lot to like there we think.”

In the audience that day was Russ Wilcox, a former CEO who’d already commercialized one big technology out of MIT. Wilcox teamed up with the two nuclear scientists. Their company is called Transatomic Power. He says the company’s technology may be from the U.S., but its markets are not.

The countries that are interested in nuclear and are growing quickly, you’ve got China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines,” says Wilcox. 

Transatomic’s first customers might even be in the Middle East, where countries are consuming more and more energy to make salt water into drinking water.

What Transatomic wants to do is pretty mind-boggling. They want to build nuclear plants prefab in America and ship them overseas.

To do that, Transatomic Power will need a lot of private money, and a lot of public support for its research. The company wants to build its pilot plant in America. But, Wilcox says Transatomic may have to build it abroad if another country is more willing to help make the company’s vision a reality.

“I’m not sure how the human race is going to get its energy needs without cooking the planet if we don’t find some solution like this. So I feel that we should try very, very hard,” says Wilcox.

Boston venture capitalist Rob Day says it’s good that American companies are helping to develop clean energy around the world. But, he wants them to have a strong domestic market, too.

“Because the real risk is, that a lot of those companies end up selling overseas. They end up building their customer bases overseas. They may even move overseas or sell themselves to an acquirer overseas. And, there’s a real risk here that we lose our leadership position, which we’ve built through our innovative capabilities. But, we lose our leadership position because we’re not the best market,” says Day. 

One company that’s trying to keep a leadership position in solar is 1366 Technologies. CEO Frank van Mierlo is giving a tour of the company’s first factory in the Boston suburbs.

“Our wafer comes out of the machine and is very uniform. That’s one of the big selling arguments that we have is that we eliminate a lot of the variability in manufacturing,” says van Mierlo. 

But there’s one room van Mierlo won’t show anybody -- the furnace room, where there are currently three furnaces in operation.

The door’s window has been papered over to make sure nobody can look in, according to van Mierlo.

Inside is the company’s key breakthrough – a technology that came out of MIT. It is a machine that makes silicon wafers for 1/3 less than the competition. That’s key, because wafers are the most expensive part of solar panels. 

“It’s a real-life example happening right here in Massachusetts of how technology is drastically reducing the cost. You know, we’ve made fantastic progress, and thanks to technology we’ll be able to continue that,” says van Mierlo. 

He thinks by the end of the decade, solar will be cheaper than coal. But, he says there also needs to be a good way to store energy when the sun’s not shining. So, van Mierlo sees falling natural gas prices as an opportunity: “I actually believe we truly have a sunny future, pun intended. And that gas is a very helpful transition fuel.”

Van Mierlo says the fracking boom is giving the United States cheap energy for a while, a time window that the America can use to invest in better energy storage and next generation power. It’s a sudden windfall, he says, that the U.S. cannot afford to squander.

Reported for America Abroad by Curt Nickish. 


Global Energy and Innovations / Produced by Jocelyn Ford, Curt Nickish, Bianca Vazquez Toness and A.C. Valdez / Edited by Martha Little with additional production help from Flawn Williams / Web Producer: Philippa Levenberg / Photos via Flickr: pjmixer; djwtwo and AP photos: Bettmann/Corbis and Ajit Solanki.

Host: Madeline Brand/ Length: 51 minutes / Airdate: April 2013

This show was made possible through the generous support of Qatar Foundation International and the Stuart Family Foundation.

Click here to read a report on this show by our Ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, in response to the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting article published May 31, 2013.

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Documentaries

Documentaries

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