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Energy Supply



What initiatives, policies and technologies can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector?
Submit proposals:
Rules: All entrants must agree to the 2016 Contest Rules. and Terms of Use.
Deadline: Monday, May 23, 2016 at 19:00:00 PM Eastern Standard Time
Judging Criteria & Prizes: See below.


Energy plays a fundamental role in the progress of global civilization. The composition of the global energy mix has evolved over time based on technological and cultural advances and to suit economic activities and energy demand. The industrial revolution led to a shift from conventional biomass (firewood) to fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, gas), followed by nuclear and hydropower sources.  Technological and manufacturing advances have brought efficient, clean, and renewable energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) into the electricity generation portfolio as well.  With a broader array of low carbon emission options, when and how to switch from fossil to renewable energy sources is at the forefront of business and policy concerns.

The 2015 COP21 agreement set a target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  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 electricity sector remains the single largest emitter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, largely due to its overall reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

Reliable and clean access to electricity is pivotal for global health, economic development , social stability, and national security. Though decarbonizing the electricity sector is a policy priority for many countries and intergovernmental organizations, it continues to present technological, economic and policy challenges. As such, these challenges demand innovative solutions to ensure that emissions from the electricity sector can be dramatically reduced in the years ahead. 

Key Issues

This contest focuses on the electricity generation sector 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, must be considered when comparing different decarbonization approaches.

The following are some example topic areas that might be useful for consideration when addressing how to decarbonize the electricity sector. However, contestants should not feel constrained to these areas and can consider additional areas beyond this list.

Fuel choices:  Natural gas was once regarded 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.

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, 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, 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: feasibility, novelty, impact and presentation quality.  Winning proposals will be especially strong in at least one of the first three dimensions, and also well presented.  For details about the judging criteria, click here.

You can find the proposal template here, and contest schedule here.


Top proposals in each contest will be awarded...

Judges’ Choice Winner – Strongest overall
Popular Choice Winner – Received the most votes during the voting period
Impact Award – Largest impact and highly feasible
Novelty Award – Most innovative

The Judges’ and Popular Choice Winners will be invited to MIT to present their proposal, enter the Climate CoLab Winners Program and be eligible for the $10,000 Grand Prize. All award winners will receive wide recognition and visibility by the MIT Climate CoLab. 

All Finalists are asked to submit a 3-minute video outlining their proposal.  Videos will be featured on the MIT Climate CoLab website and Winners will show their videos at the conference.

If your proposal is included in a top global climate action plan, you will receive CoLab Points, which are redeemable for cash prizes.  

Resources for Proposal Authors

MIT, 2011. The Future of the Electric Grid (U.S.-focused)

Regulatory Assistance Project & Synapse Energy Economics, 2012. Strategies for Decarbonizing the Electric Power Supply

Jacobson & Delucchi, Energy Policy, 2010 Part 1. Providing all Global Energy with Wind, Water, and Solar Power, Part 1

Jacobson & Delucchi, Energy Policy, 2010 Part 2. Providing all Global Energy with Wind, Water, and Solar Power, Part 2

DOE, 2008. The Smart Grid: An Introduction (U.S.-Focused)

Regulatory Assistance Project, 2010. Clean First: Aligning Power Sector Regulation with Environmental and Climate Goals:

Zareipour et al, NAPS, 2004. Distributed Generation: Current Status and Challenges

IEA, 2009. Prospects for Large-Scale Energy Storage in Decarbonised Power Grids

Howarth, Robert W., Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea. "Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations." Climatic Change 106.4 (2011): 679-690.


Photo credit: janie.hernandez55