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Will Natural Gas Peaker Plants Become Obsolete?

Deborah Lawrence's picture
CEO Energy Policy Forum
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  • Apr 24, 2015

Peaker Plants and aging

Nat gas peaker plants generate electricity when it’s needed most. Such as on hot summer days when air conditioning becomes not so much a luxury as a necessity. And of course, this energy is also the most expensive. So who would have thought that something as lowly as the home thermostat could actually have the potential to make a nat gas peaker plant obsolete?

Smart grids are a fascinating emerging trend in the electricity markets. And perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is the incorporation of smart energy management on the home scale. This has been sorely missing to date. Utilities have long worked with commercial customers to manage energy usage but controlling usage in the residential sector proved problematic. And it has to be said, a bit unimaginative. Not anymore.

While there are a number of smart thermostats in the market, a company called Nest which was formed by a couple of engineers coming out of Apple managed to capture the imagination of consumers. In fact, so much so that Google purchased the company for $3.2B in January 2014, a mere four years after it was founded. So why would Google pay so much for this technology? It’s quite simple, really. The upside potential is profound.

The Nest thermostat is a techno geeks dream. And yet it can still be easily managed by the rest of us. It controls energy demand in the home by gathering data on each individual home’s particular energy needs and then optimizes that data through reduced energy consumption. Obviously this saves users money on their electricity bill. But it also does much more.

The company states:

“Most people leave the house at one temperature and forget to change it. So the Nest Learning Thermostat learns your schedule, programs itself and can be controlled from your phone. Teach it well and the Nest Thermostat can lower your heating and cooling bills up to 20%”.

And it doesn’t stop there. The Nest now incorporates DropCam which:

“…streams HD video live to your computer, phone or tablet. And sends you alerts when there’s motion.”

So presumably you can check to see if your cat really does taunt your dog. But that is not reason enough to pay $3.2B for the technology. MIT Technological Review puts it best:

“For utilities, this kind of “demand response” has long been seen as a killer app for a smart electrical grid, because if electricity use can be lowered just enough at peak times, utilities can avoid firing up costly (and dirty) backup plants.”

And they go on to state:

“Demand response is a neat trick. The Nest thermostat manages it by combining two things that are typically separate—price information and control over demand. It’s consumers who control the air conditioners, electric heaters, and furnaces that dominate a home’s energy diet. But the actual cost of energy can vary widely, in ways that consumers only dimly appreciate and can’t influence.”

Cost of electricity can indeed vary widely. To take Texas as an example, on a hot day when air conditioners are running almost continuously, MIT notes that the wholesale cost can run up from about $40 per megawatt hour to spike as high as nearly $5000 per megawatt hour.

So Austin Energy, the local utility for Austin, Texas engaged with Nest Labs Rush Hour Rewards. This is a service provided by Nest to utilities which enables them to access the Big Data from all the Nest smart thermostats in the area. In this case, they were in Austin. By accessing this data, utilities can better monitor and respond to usage during the peak demand days. The results have been startling. The use of the smart thermostats knocks down demand during peak hours on the hottest of days. Now Austin Energy is offering rebates to encourage customers to use more smart thermostats. Why? Significant cost savings. MIT states:

“Even if Austin gives out $2 million in rebates, that is cheaper than increasing power supply by building a natural-gas-fired generator.”

The cost savings involved in the obsolescence of nat gas peaker plants could ultimately save billions of dollars. MIT points out:

“Eventually, the effects of demand response could be profound. Austin’s program is designed to manage demand only during the 50 hours each year when electricity consumption tests the grid’s limits most. But if demand response can expand to cover the 300 or 400 hours of peak usage, it could entirely shut down the market for “peakers,” or gas-fired plants that come online only to sell expensive electricity. “That’s a big chunk of money that’s at stake,” says Tom Osterhus, CEO of Integral Analytics, a Cincinnati-based maker of smart-grid analytics software. “It’s in the billions.’”

Sales of Nests have been robust. According to Morgan Stanley, in 2014 Nest was selling about 100,000 units a month for about $250. This gave the company about $300 million in revenue. This equates to twice the revenue of 2013. Still market penetration is relatively quite small.

So this simple piece of technology has enormous upside potential. And not only for consumers but also for utilities. Avoiding the costs of building expensive nat gas peaker plants will no doubt appeal to utilities. The cost savings could be massive. But it also doesn’t hurt that the Nest is just plain fun to use. And saves you money too.

The post Will Nat Gas Peaker Plants Become Obsolete? appeared first on Energy Policy Forum.

Photo Credit: Peaker Plant Replacement?/shutterstock

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 24, 2015

Deborah, I’m not sure we should be enthusiastically welcoming a future where utilities can lower our electrical consumption on the hottest days of the year, when it’s most convenient for them.

In Chicago, ComEd is planning to save themselves money on building new peakers by simply lowering everyone’s voltage by 3%. Instead of 120 volts, customers would be served 116.3, and the company is bracing for customer complaints and the “control irregularities” which may result. Billed as “Voltage Optimization”, the plan has captivated activists like Dick Munson of the Environmental Defense Fund, who wonders whether the energy savings are “magic”.

What’s magic is the ease with which ComEd has been able to bewitch people like Dick who don’t know any better.

A mandatory, post-high-school stint in the Peace Corps would help American consumers of the future appreciate the value of the steady supply of alternating current which makes their lifestyle possible. At the moment, it’s completely taken for granted.

Deborah Lawrence's picture
Deborah Lawrence on Apr 24, 2015

 I agree with you that limiting voltage is not a good answer. In fact, I would say that it is unimaginative. The Nest thermostat actually gathers data on how quickly your particular house heats up and alters the consumption accordingly.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 24, 2015

Deborah, there’s a lot to like about smart thermostats, but is the Nest too smart? Because it communicates regularly with its real boss – Google – there’s also an issue of privacy.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Apr 24, 2015


Good link.  I agree with your privacy concerns.  But like most new technologies there is an opportunity for good and evil and it is totally dependent upon how we as a society choose to manage it.  If managed well it will serve us, if not, welcome to 1984.  But as far as that goes, I think NEST is the least of our concerns.  Pretty much everything we do is now monitored by big brother, cameras in nearly every public and private institution, computer activities tracked, all of our cell phone info etc.  Google already knows when I have left my house because they track me on my phone and as soon as I log into a computer at my destination and probably other ways that I have not even imagined.  If they know how I heat my house so be it. 

I hope we will see well designed distributed demand side management tools emerge.  NEST appears to be the killer app that has the right mix of ‘works well’, ease of use and sexy to push distributed DSM into the mainstream.  Like it or not it is here to stay. 


Deborah Lawrence's picture
Deborah Lawrence on Apr 24, 2015

I agree with both of you. There are privacy concerns with just about everything now but your point is well considered, Clayton. I personally don’t care either if Google knows how I heat my house particulrly if peripheral benefits have the potential to far outweigh such concerns.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Apr 24, 2015

This post from GTM shows another smart grid application that can reduce peak load and need for peakers.  It also can support increased wind generation while reducing need for curtailment.

There has been debate on TEC about the ability to load shift with EVs but recent studies show that price signals are very effective.  Using this combination of smart grid and EVs can help reduce need for peakers in two ways. 

1) reduce peak demand by shifting loads.

2) Shifting demand to night which supports the building of more wind generation (which is night peaking).  In areas such as Texas, wind is credited with about 8% firm power.  If load is shifted to night time then that 8% of nameplate becomes a higher percentage of peak thus further reducing the need for peakers and other firming sources.

This approach has the added benefit that it can be done in such a way as to not feed the Google data beast.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 24, 2015

Clayton, the amount of information everyone’s willing to share is a personal choice, so I’m curious to see whether Nest will be able to expand its market beyond niche status. An interesting article in Wired:

But even anonymized user data would give Google incredible new insights into our behavior in the physical world that its vast roster of very smart people could figure out how to leverage in order to advance its business.

Perhaps Google could pair our movements with how we shop — say, using Google’s own same-day delivery service. Or some choice we make offline that compels us to perform a particular search.

This may sound creepy, but much like using Google for search, it could become the price of admission for participation in the internet of things.

Personally, I’ll pass. I don’t need a lot of help from Google deciding what I like and don’t like.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Apr 24, 2015

The major trend in electricity markets, I think, will be replacing baseload with a combo of wind and natural gas. Demand side management may only be able to do some initial dampening of the need for more natural gas plants, considering the timescales of wind variations.

Daniel Duggan's picture
Daniel Duggan on Apr 25, 2015

Grid connected wind and PV solar are parasitic generators hosted by the grid and by 100% back-up from a fleet of conventional synchronous dispatchable power plants. In order to maintain necessary voltage and frequency stability on a wind and/or PV rich grid sufficient conventional synchronous plants must run at all times, some in ‘constrained on’ operation at reduced or minimum load. Constrained-on running of CCGT, coal, nuclear and hydro plants provides sufficient reserve most of the time, thereby substantially reducing OCGT operation during peaks There is a saving from not firing-up the inefficient OCGTs, however this is more than counterbalanced by the cost of burning extra fuel at the constrained-on units which must run inefficiently in proportion to the percentage of asynchronous wind and/or PV dispatched at any point in time. 

Turning down the AC when out of the house and having it ramp-up half an hour before returning is logical, thinking for existing high-energy homes. With regard to smart metering; we live in a house fitted with day/night meters and mains gas heating. Night rate electricity costs 50% more than gas, and day rate electricity cost double the night rate, or 300% the kWh cost of gas. Doing everything possible to maximise night and minimise day electricity our night consumption now lies between 35% and 50% of the total, the remainder being at at day rate. As gas is considerably less expensive than even night rate electricity all heating is by gas. Just how smart metering which will reduce the cost of electricity at random times, and increase it at others, can benefit our household is somewhat of a mystery. I suspect that as with wind and solar there is no benefit whatsoever to the consumer, only to the grid and to the manufacturers and installers of smart meters.

The long term solution to high cooling and heating requirments is better designed and built Passive, or Near-Passive Energy houses which consume little energy. As the European building materials industry adopts to mass production of these higher energy standard houses, European passive energy homes are now being constructed with only a small additional cost (5-10%) over conventional homes. In return for this initial investment, home heating / cooling costs are reduced by as much as 90%. When a home’s energy requirement sinks so drastically, complex heat pumps, solar thermal, PV, etc. are no longer a viable option, as a simple gas / electric heater or AC can provide the remaining heating / cooling required at a far lower cost per kWh.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Apr 26, 2015

Constrained-on running of CCGT, coal, nuclear and hydro plants provides sufficient reserve most of the time, thereby substantially reducing OCGT operation during peaks There is a saving from not firing-up the inefficient OCGTs, however this is more than counterbalanced by the cost of burning extra fuel at the constrained-on units which must run inefficiently in proportion to the percentage of asynchronous wind and/or PV dispatched at any point in time.”

Though in the process of spinning up that argument, its tacitly gone from comprehensive to selective, since spinning reserve from hydro does not entail a cost of burning extra fuel.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Apr 26, 2015

One of the open questions with the issue in this article is how much demand response will be dispatchable on the 5-15min time scale.

After all, the shorter the time scale, the lower the magnitude of costs of stabilizing variable renewable energy outputs with storage. The capital cost of storage per kWh to smooth power output of variable renewable generation is inversely related to the frequency of the variation, and the magnitude of the variation is also inversely related to the frequency. And the capital cost of storage balances against energy lost from curtailment ~ for example, if there is storage sufficient for 50% of the range of variation which covers 80% of the range of power output, curtailment loses 20% of the power, while conserving 50% of the capital cost of the storage.

So the shorter the market period, the lower the cost of stabilizing variable renewable energy output within the market period using storage.

And as noted, fueled generation as spinning reserve is energy inefficient, and so it is more energy efficient to schedule individually fueled generation units to lead or follow load.

A market period of 5min-15min would then create a commercial opportunity to integrate bids for dispatchable load reductions as part of the market process, and it would be the opportunity to bid dispatchable load reductions that would be the commercial driver for installation of dispatchable load.

Most dispatchable demand is a time shift of demand, and so, compared to a purely reactive system, the dispatchable demand would reduce requirement for peaker production from two sides. When dispatchable demand is shifting demand out of the current market period, it is reducing current load, so reducing the gap between load-following power generation and current load. And when it is shifting demand into the current market period, it is providing load that is known in advance with certainty, so it is increasing the amount of load-following power generation that can be scheduled.

There is a kind of “institutional fixed cost” in setting up current power markets so that dispatchable demand is part of the bidding process. Since the pace of roll-out of dispatchable demand will be driven by the financial benefits, the roll-out is faster if that institutional reform is leading the roll-out, looking ahead to prospective benefits, rather than waiting until there is sufficient dispatchable demand capacity in place to justify the integration based on current benefits.

Indeed, its even conceivable that there is a demand “trap”, where the amount of dispatchable demand that will be installed given a system of bidding demand dispatch into a 15min current power market is enough to justify that integration, but without that integration, it is not enough.
Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Apr 26, 2015

Under that premise, the issue that this particular article addresses is whether they will be peaker plants or NGCC. NGCC obviously does damage at a slower rate than peaker plants do.

In the intermediate term, if we price carbon emissions with any sanity, fossil baseload should be taken out from both sides by both nuclear baseload (and “partial load following” on the French model) and by renewables firmed by some combination of fossil following load and peaker, dispatchable renewables, and storage.

And in the long term, if we price carbon emissions with any sanity, fossil-fueled generation will be taken out entirely, and it will be some combination of nuclear baseload / partial load following, variable renewables, dispatchable demand, dispachable renewables, and storage.


Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Apr 26, 2015

The biggest challenge in not feeding the “Google data beast” is that, as you say, people respond to price signals, and the commercial value of the data allows Google to make attractive price offers for people willing to sign away their privacy to get the discount.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Apr 26, 2015

I agree there is attractiveness to allowing centralized control that optimizes based upon its ability to look at the opportunity in aggregate. 

I have wondered whether an efficient market could be created by allowing individual charging stations to incorporate user controled algorythms with bid and ask functions.  It would work something like NASDAQ.  As cars with 200+ mile batteries come on the market simple charging algorythms would assure sufficient charge for the following day but leave some in reserve that would only be topped off in the event of substantial price drops in response to higher than usual wind.  I.e. rather than curtailing, there would be reserve storage (load) that would absorb what otherwise would have been curtailed. 

This approach could be very effective without the requirement of big data aggregation by google or an EMotorWerks/Ohmconnect


Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Apr 27, 2015

NASDAQ is an over the counter market, which depends on traders buying and selling stock at posted prices. The main 1hr or 15min markets are markets where the market maker is the buyer, and they are wholesale markets. Putting decentralized dispatchable demand into them requires an aggregator.

Now, the appeal of the market to the buyer (the grid) depends on the share of the net benefit of the dispatchable demand that the grid receives … and the appeal of the market to the consumer depends on the share of the net benefit that they receive. And the aggregator that projects net consumer level bid and ask has to either get a cut to cover their costs (including normal profit), or else get value through some other channel.

So there is one reason that those collecting Big Data may have an inside track, since if they receive a net benefit from the data generated by the operation of the market, they may offer to operate it free of transaction costs to either party, which increases the net benefit to be split between the two sides.

If it is desirable to avoid those collecting Big Data having a monopoly, then one obvious intervention would be for regulatory authorities to require that the power supply markets provide the same access to all aggregators of distributed dispatchable demand. Then if there were a sufficient number of people who did not want to trade off lack of privacy for slightly cheaper car charging, either a co-op or rival commercial alternative aggregator might be able to make a similar offering, though likely with slightly less attractive terms than Google or other Big Data collecting firms (eg, Amazon) could offer.


Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Apr 26, 2015


The Texas grid operator uses about 8% of its installed wind capacity, MW, for long term capacity planning to meet long term demand projections.

That has nothing to do with energy used day to day, or during a day, or with supply management, or with demand management. Just Google.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Apr 26, 2015


Passivhaus-style houses use about 80% less energy than an equivalent-size, standard, code-designed US house.

They have very low heating and cooling demands.

They are VERY slow to heat up and cool down by a few degrees, even with outdoor temperatures varying by 50 F or more, during a day.

They have long thermal time constants.

A  $300 NEST thermostat would have almost nothing to do.

The above is MY definition of demand control.

It is much more democratic, humane, etc.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 26, 2015

“MIT notes … MIT states …”

In the past, the faculty, alumni, and students of the prestigious MIT frequently authored articles in the old MIT Technology Review, established in 1899.  This is no longer the case. They no longer have any direct connection to the modern MIT Technology Review, which was reformed as an independent media company with MIT investment after the failure of the previous publication.  Peter Fairley, the author of the TR article about NEST, is a technology journalist.

Deborah Lawrence's picture
Deborah Lawrence on Apr 26, 2015

Nevertheless MIT published his work and thus MIT was the source. 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 26, 2015

MIT’s reputation is unaffected one way or the other by Peter Fairley

Alistair Newbould's picture
Alistair Newbould on Apr 26, 2015

Willem, I guess we also have to take into account the speed of change from standard houses to passiv houses – the rate of turnover of the housing stock. Installation of a NEST on large scale would have an immediate effect. I can’t see a $300 investment in house insulation making much impression – draft excluders on doors I guess. I do completely agree with you that the longer term goal of much more efficient well insulated houses is very important but new builds can only do this very slowly. Improving current housing stock must also be a big part of progress towards that goal. Knowing what gives most gain for $ spent is the first step and maybe for many houses at the moment NEST is the first answer.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Apr 27, 2015


Last time I looked, China is doing a lot of new-builts. 

What is holding back the US is inertia, too much old-fashioned thinking, misplaced priorities, and willpower.

Here is an example:

Deborah Lawrence's picture
Deborah Lawrence on Apr 27, 2015

What is holding back the US is inertia, too much old-fashioned thinking, misplaced priorities, and willpower.” Willem, I could not agree more!

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Apr 27, 2015

The point is that if there was an article in the New York Times, you wouldn’t say, “New York states”.

“MIT states” is a confusing attribution. “The MIT Tech Review states” is not.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Apr 27, 2015

The conclusion does not follow from the premise.

MIT published the MIT Tech Review, whose editor selected his work for publication, and thus … the MIT Tech Review is the source.

“MIT states” implies that its a claim made by the administration of MIT.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Apr 27, 2015

Thanks for the clarification.  I may have missunderstood Mark’s point.  I thought he was taking issue with the statements and suggesting that they could not be relied on since they were coming from TR rather than MIT. 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Apr 27, 2015

I wonder.. Is it widely known that MIT Tech Review is not an adjunct to MIT, or is there a disclaimer somewhere likely to be seen, to that effect? This is the first I am hearing of it for sure.

Normally any formal publication beating my name (or the company I work for’s name) is generally attributed to me (or to my employer) by the public or even legally unless there is a disclaimer to disabuse readers of this attribution.

Deborah Lawrence's picture
Deborah Lawrence on Apr 27, 2015

Point well taken Bruce and my apologies for not being more clear. I have to say, however, that splitting hairs over attribution is a weak argument for whether smart thermostats have the ability to disrupt.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 27, 2015

Agree Bruce. I would urge anyone who has not already done so to read Mark’s link above to the Wikipedia entry for MIT Technology Review. It offers a glimpse into how prestigious institutions like MIT are (my opinion, here) mortgaging their reputations by outsourcing editorial duties to media companies with savvy on how to generate sales.

That doesn’t make the articles in them factually suspect. Peter Fairley has a BS in Molecular Biology and an impressive resume in science journalism. He’s obviously a skilled communicator and someone who’s adept at converting the arcane into the readable. As Clayton points out, there’s nothing factually deficient in his reporting here, and these are actually points which have been validated many times on TEC.

But they would never pass muster in a strict academic sense, with few references and zero peer review. So yes – saying “MIT states…” is a stretch, in the same way as is quoting the Harvard Health Letter by saying, “Harvard physicians state…”. MIT Technology Review, and other publications like it, are indirect casualties of the internet and the downfall of the print journalism business model. They strive to maintain profitability by appealing to a wider audience. The problem is that necessitates translation to a language laypeople can understand, with the potential for not only errors in translation but the introduction of bias.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 27, 2015

 Is it widely known that MIT Tech Review is not an adjunct to MIT, or is there a disclaimer somewhere likely to be seen, to that effect? This is the first I am hearing of it for sure.”

The difference in content, old and new, is glaring in my opinion.   In the past, The MIT TR routinely published articles like this famously controversion 1983 piece by Lawrence Lidsky, MIT professor of nuclear engineering and founding editor of the Journal of Fusion Energy.  That is, authors were often those with deep technical knowledge of the subject via years of contribution to the discipline.  

This is no longer the case at TR, where the current authors self-identify as journalists that rotate through other populist technology publications like Discover and Spectrum.

None of this is to say the Fairley piece on Nest is in error, only that, as for any other reporter,  it is the sources referenced that count and not the opinion of the author.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on May 1, 2015

Normally any formal publication beating my name (or the company I work for’s name) is generally attributed to me (or to my employer) by the public or even legally unless there is a disclaimer to disabuse readers of this attribution.”

I would assume that there is such a disclaimer in the Harvard Business Review, but would any profesisonal seriously refer to an article in the HBR as “Harvard says”, and would any professional need to read whatever the disclaimer says to know that the articles in the HBR are not what “Harvard says”?

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on May 1, 2015

I’m strongly in favor of demand response as a means to eliminate or at least minimize the need for peaker plants. But I’m very skeptical of the potential for gimmicks like “smart thermostats” to make a major difference.

There are very few opportunities for load shifting at the residential level that don’t involve major capital expense for the homeowner. Take water heating, for example; existing water heaters in most homes would need to be replaced with much larger and better insulated models that can heat water when surplus power is available, and then deliver it over extended periods when power demand is high. Of course, if one is going to be installing new water heaters, the more efficient and sensible choice would be gas, not electrical.

The applications that are large enough to eliminate the need for peaking plants are scarce. Or rather, applications that can do it economically are scarce. A reverse-osmosis water treatment plant is a heavy power user that could be run from “as available” power. However, an R.O. facility is a very expensive investment, and it makes no sense to operate it as a low priority power consummer for load flattening. It has high fixed costs, so operating it a low duty cycle raises the cost of its output significantly. 

What works better? My favorite would be district heating and cooling utilizing geothermal hot and cold stores. Another promising alternative would be water desalination by mechanical vapor recompression rather than reverse osmosis. For MVR, capital cost for a given plant capacity is much lower. Energy expenditure per acre-foot is higher, but the low capital cost means that it’s feasible to use cheap, “as available” power to do the work. 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 1, 2015

Quoting from the HBR with an interpretation that “Harvard says” is much closer to the truth, as HBR is in fact authored by Harvard B School faculty and the like.  Not so MIT TR. 

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on May 2, 2015

Its an academic journal … it does not specialize in the work of Harvard faculty, it aims to publish high level work in its field from faculty at a wide range of institutions of higher learning.

And even there, what Harvard faculty say and what “Harvard” says are two dramatically different things. Academic freedom means that Harvard faculty are allowed to say things that Harvard as a University adamantly disagrees with, so long as they can get enough people in their field of study convinced that its high quality, reputable research.

So even if HBR had nothing in it but Harvard business school faculty, it would still be misleading to say “Harvard says”.

Even if the MIT Tech Review was mostly MIT researchers reporting on their research, “academic freedom” would still apply to the editorial policy, in choosing to publish works because it is deemed reputable research and not because it represents the views of MIT as an institution.

The fact that its been turned into a “for laymen with some interest in science” magazine just magnifies what would be an inappropriate attribution in any event.


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