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Energy Supply


Question: What initiatives, policies, and technologies can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector?
Submit Proposals:
Rules: All entrants must agree to the Contest rules and Terms of Use
Deadline: Sunday, Sep 10, 2017 at 18:00:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time
Judging Criteria & Prizes: See below.


Energy plays a fundamental role in the progress of global civilization. Historically, the composition of the global energy mix has evolved over time based on technological and cultural advances and in order to suit changes economic activities and overall demand patterns. The shift from conventional biomass (firewood) to fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and nuclear) and hydropower, and now to alternative or renewable energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) is evidence of the significant evolution of the energy landscape that has taken place.

Today, the global energy mix is dominated by fossil fuel sources, which is one of the major sources of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The 2015 COP21 agreement set a goal of attempting to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This will require GHG emission reductions from the projected 55 gigatons above pre-industrial levels to 40 gigatons by 2030. While the industrial, transportation and residential sectors account for significant shares of energy related emissions, the power sector remains the single largest emitter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, largely due to its overall reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

Though decarbonizing the energy sector is a policy objective for many countries and intergovernmental organizations, it continues to present technological, economic and policy challenges to the world. As such, this challenge demands innovative solutions in technology, business models, policy and regulation, among others to ensure that emissions from the electricity sector, which will continue to play a pivotal role in global economic development, can be dramatically reduced in the years ahead.

Key Issues

In this contest, the electricity generation sector is given the central focus because:


Though different methodologies for assessing GHG reductions exist, it is vital to apply a broader carbon accounting approach when evaluating the impacts of electricity generation to net GHG emissions. For example, environmental impacts associated with decarbonizing the electricity sector, such as land use changes for biomass production or disposal of solar modules after their life-span, must be considered when comparing different decarbonization approaches.

The following are some example areas that might be useful for consideration. However, contestants should not feel constrained to these areas, and can consider additional areas beyond this list:

Fuel choices: Natural gas was once regarded by some as a bridge fuel to decarbonization due to its reduced carbon emissions compared to coal. However, recent studies show that natural gas leakages result in methane emissions that have higher climate warming effects than CO2. Renewable sources, such as wind and solar, are already cheaper than fossil fuels in some regions and are gradually making significant inroads into the electricity generation mix worldwide. However, these technologies cannot displace fossil fuels entirely due to their inherent variability in supply and intermittency. Nuclear-generated electricity is largely carbon neutral, but increasing nuclear power generation is hampered by various challenges, including waste disposal, nuclear proliferation, water usage, and public perception of safety. Hydropower generation is often categorized as renewable, but has significant challenges in terms of land use, biodiversity conservation, droughts, and community displacements. Given the trade-offs between different fuel choices, optimal solutions may encompass different clean fuel mixes to meet climate goals and electricity demand. Energy efficiency can be included as an energy enabler, as the “Negawatts” saved today account as a source of energy. Such efficiency could be attained both in energy generation and in end use; in a sense, energy efficiency is the cleanest and cheapest form of energy.

Power generation methods: Although electricity around the world is largely generated within centralized grids, distributed electricity generation is becoming viable especially in developing regions. Distributed generation utilizes solar photovoltaics, fuel cells, wind, mini-hydro, combined heat and power (CHP), and battery storage to generate and store electricity close to where electricity is used. Opportunities also exist to make centralized thermoelectric plants more efficient and less carbon intensive (e.g. super critical CO2 cycle generation). Additionally, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies may offer economic GHG reduction options for existing and new carbon-intensive power plants.

Transmission and distribution: Although generation is the focus of this contest, transmission and distribution systems play pivotal roles in ensuring access to low-carbon electricity generation. Electricity grids around the world are in a state of transition. The U.S. electric grid is aging and in need of upgrades. In many regions around the world, the grids are inefficient and unable to meet growing electricity demand. In terms of infrastructure, developing regions have the opportunity to leapfrog past carbon-intensive centralized grid designs into low-carbon decentralized designs. In terms of generation, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are challenging to integrate because they are intermittent and available during off-peak consumption periods of the day. The transmission and distribution systems cannot integrate high penetrations of renewable energy because they were designed for one-way power flow from continuous generation sources to loads, with minimal monitoring and sensor networks. Smart grids can alleviate this challenge by combining information technology with advanced electrical infrastructure to enable two-way power flow and system monitoring. Large-scale storage alleviates the intermittency and generation time challenges of renewable energy. There is also a large consumer-side potential to reduce emissions through energy efficiency and demand response programs that reduce demand and alter consumption patterns to match renewable generation peaks. Increased transmission efficiency using advanced conductor and transformer technologies, and expanding load balancing areas can also aid large-scale integration of renewable electricity sources. Finally, distributed technologies like microgrids (small decentralized generation and distribution systems), installed individually or together with other centralized systems, have the potential to reduce transmission power losses.

Policy incentives: Carbon taxes and cap and trade policies may seem like a good idea, but face significant challenges in implementation. Government incentives are often the short-term solutions rather than long term goals, such as those associated with limiting global warming to 1.5C. However, such tax and policy incentives have helped foster change in many industries and for other environmental issues (e.g. ozone layer depletion). Specifically, can CO2-emitting companies embrace a carbon tax to the government or would they prefer to directly invest their “carbon tax dollars” in a renewable energy fund? In addition to the carbon tax and cap and trade policies that have already been implemented, novel approaches to utility policy choices and regulatory practices (e.g. creation of markets that encourage clean and resilient energy grids, and policies that give prominence to clean power dispatch), social incentives, certificates, or technical advancements can play critical roles in incentivizing a transition to a low-carbon electricity sector.


Judging Criteria

Judges will be asked to evaluate proposals on the following criteria:

Winning proposals will be especially strong in at least one of the first three dimensions, and also well presented.

Judges will evaluate proposals, and deliberate as a group to select the Semi-Finalists, Finalists, Winners, and possibly other awardee(s) at their discretion.  Judgments of desirability are also made in the final stage of the contest, by the Climate CoLab community through popular vote, and by the Judges through their selection of the Judges' Choice winner(s).


Top proposals in each contest will be awarded...

Judges’ Choice Award -- Two proposals* will be selected by the Judges to receive the Judges' Choice-- one project, and one practice.

Popular Choice Award – Received the most votes during the public voting period.

The Judges’ Choice Award and Popular Choice Award Winners will be invited to MIT (see prior Climate CoLab Conferences), join the Climate CoLab winners’ alumni, and be eligible for the $10,000 Grand Prize—to be selected from among the winners across contests.

All award Winners and Finalists will receive wide recognition and platform visibility from MIT Climate CoLab. Climate CoLab or its collaborators may offer additional awards or recognition at their discretion.

* Judges’ Choice Award(s) are allocated at the Judging panel’s discretion. In rare cases, the Judges may choose not to select awardees.

Resources for Proposal Authors