GE joins MIT energy initiative, donates $7.5 million

Source: By Curt Woodward, Boston Globe • Posted: Wednesday, August 31, 2016

General Electric Co. is joining an energy research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the goal of tapping new thinking on cutting carbon emissions and replacing fossil fuels, showcasing the kind of partnerships the industrial behemoth is seeking as it relocates its headquarters to Boston.

The company will become a member of the MIT Energy Initiative and is donating $7.5 million for its research efforts, particularly in the areas of solar power, energy storage, advanced power grids, and carbon sequestration, officials said.

“This partnership really is about advancing the state of the art in low-carbon technologies,” said Steve Bolze, chief executive of the conglomerate’s $29 billion GE Power division.

Staying abreast of the latest electric-system technology is critical to GE’s business. Its turbines, generators, and other industrial machines are used to generate about a third of the world’s electricity, Bolze said.

The donation also comes as GE undertakes a massive shift in its corporate identity, trying to establish what chief executive Jeffrey Immelt has called a “digital industrial” company. Its move to Boston is part of that shift, putting the company closer to leading researchers and innovative entrepreneurs whose insights on technology could help GE develop more sophisticated machinery.

The company is planning exhibit and public gathering spaces inside the headquarters complex it is building in Fort Point, and many of the 800 employees who will eventually work there will be in software and technology development.

GE is also shedding huge sections of the sprawling company, including its stake in NBC, its iconic appliance business, and most of its financial businesses. At the same time, GE plans to spend more than $10 billion annually on R&D and capital expenditures.

For its part, MIT gets more than another corporate sponsor out of the deal. GE’s massive footprint in electric power means the company can put cutting-edge technologies to use at a huge scale, MIT energy initiative director Robert Armstrong said.

GE also plans to pay for a special energy research fellowship at MIT and expects to have an employee from GE Power, which is based in Schenectady, N.Y, on the campus often to act as a liaison between the MIT program and the company.

“We share common interests in trying to bring more energy to people that don’t have it, and at the same time de-carbonizing the energy system globally,” Armstrong said. “It’s not enough for a university to develop a technology. It’s critical to have a partner like GE who can help you get it to people.”

The MIT Energy Initiative was founded in 2006. Armstrong declined to disclose the program’s annual budget, but he said it has secured more than $600 million in research funding since its launch. The largest source of that money is industry, he said.

GE was working on the MIT donation before the company announced its plans to relocate to Boston, Bolze said. But the company’s closer proximity to the university — GE opened its first temporary offices last week — will probably help bolster the two entities’ partnership.

“It allows us to accelerate our presence here,” Bolze said. “I think you can just see this as a next logical step in what we’re trying to do in the broader Boston ecosystem.”