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May 122008

By Harriet Blake

The greening of America’s college campuses is happening from coast to coast. Stanford University hosts a green dorm project; the University of Texas has started the McCombs Green Team; and Northwestern University sponsors the annual Green City Summer Institute.electricporschemit.jpg

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, home to some of the world’s finest scientists and engineers, the green umbrella program is called the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and like the university, it aims high, aspiring to be a “catalyst for transforming the energy landscape,” says Susan Hockfield, MIT president.

Introduced in 2006, MITEI puts the entire campus to work on energy and climate issues to reduce energy use on campus, but also to find innovations that the larger world can use.

In April, for instance, students completed the conversion of a 1976 Porsche into an all-electric vehicle. Now, the university reported, “the real fun starts” when the students collect data about how the car performs and try to make it more efficient and bring down costs.

Under the MITEI program, students also are engaged in a biodiesel project, where waste oil from the dining hall is converted to biodiesel fuel. They are testing and comparing which types of building doors that lose the most energy, as well as revamping the chemistry lab so it doesn’t needlessly contribute to global warming.

Leon Glicksman, professor of building technology and mechanical engineering, co-chair of the school’s Campus Energy Task Force, and self-described MIT “lifer” has seen a big evolution at MIT with the introduction of MITEI, for which he credits Hockfield.

The initiative allows MIT to become a lab for students on energy efficiency on campus, he says. It also involves students, faculty and staff in the reduction of carbon emissions and serves as an example to outside groups.

Research, education and campus energy ideas are key components of the initiative, says Steve Lanou, deputy director of environmental sustainability at the school. It is a multi-discipline approach to a climate-changed world that “aligns all of MIT’s assets from research and basic science to political science and policy.” It includes undergraduate as well as graduate work.

At MIT’s business school, the Sloan School of Management, approximately 70 MIT MBA students are enrolled in a class called Laboratory for Sustainable Business. They are taking the class because of their interest in the environment as well as for the opportunity to make an investment in sustainability.

“This rare marriage of concern and opportunity is conceiving a potentially powerful political constituency,” says MIT Professor Richard Locke.

As early as 2000, MIT has been working on environmental stewardship, Lanou says. “But the initiative has deepened this commitment.” He says recycling is a good indicator of the campus’ green intentions. Back in 2000, he estimates that less than five percent of students recycled. Today that number is about 40 percent.

MIT also initiated green building guidelines in 2003 requiring that all new construction be LEED Silver certified, or better.

Students, faculty and staff are actively participating in energy sustainability, Lanou says. “It gives us the opportunity to institutionalize the campus’ own sustainability and find strategies for reducing our carbon footprint.”

MIT students have developed teams that focus on energy conservation on campus. Some have developed lecture series on climate change. Others have conducted experiments to measure energy efficiency. In one case, students measured how much energy was lost in the use of doors that swing open as opposed to revolving doors. In another case, a team is holding a dormitory competition to see which dorm can save the most electricity.

Even the alumni have gotten involved. The campus’ Great Dome of Building 10 had not been lit for some time. In the spring of 2007, a generous alum helped change that in a green way. His gift replaced outdated lighting fixtures with energy-saving light-emitting diodes (LED). In addition, the new lighting system includes energy made by a 40-kilowatt solar panel array from a nearby roof. It connects to MIT’s electrical grid and provides 10 times more power than the dome lighting uses.

Professor Glicksman notes that one of the biggest projects to come out of the energy initiative is the $500,000 budgeted by the school to examine energy efficiency on campus. Select MIT buildings are being monitored to see how energy efficient they are. “It’ll be done the ‘MIT-way,’” he says, “we’ll be innovative, but make sure we document how much it costs, and how well it works.”

One such example is the heating efficiency of dormitories. Two identical dorms using steam heat were chosen for the experiment. One dorm was renovated, the other was not. The fixed one, says Glicksman, ended up using half of the energy of the other. Being able to document and compare was important.

Changing behavior is another major component of energy efficiency, says Glicksman. An undergraduate student did a thesis on the chemistry building labs where there are fume hoods to keep students safe during experiments. The student noticed that many hoods were left open at night. The energy lost from one of these hoods, he determined, could heat a single family home for one night. As a result, the chemistry department has started to monitor the labs more closely, closing the hoods when not in use.

As part of MIT’s environmental staff, Lanou is pleased with the direction the school is headed. With a student body of about 10,000 (4,000 undergrads; 6,000 grads), the school has seen a tremendous change in awareness, he says.

Graduate students Elsa Olivetti and Dan Wesolowski assisted on the fume hood project. She put together and crunched the numbers; he analyzed the data.

Olivetti, who is now pursuing a post doctorate at MIT, says she appreciates the way MIT has integrated the energy initiative among students, faculty and administration. She says the school’s green approach is consistent with her passion about the environment.

“It’s important for me to work in an environment that is as good as it can be.” She says MIT shows integrity, by leading by example. “The school understands the environmental and economic consequences of global warming,” she says.

Wesolowski, who believes the school could do even more than it already is for the environment, nonetheless says that MIT provides motivated students with many ways to contribute on green issues. He says one of these is the student-led initiative, Biodiesel@MIT that last year won the EcoImagination Challenge and $25,000 from General Electric and MTVU (MTV’s 24-hour college station). The students came up with a way to turn used vegetable oil from campus dining facilities into biodiesel fuel for MIT diesel campus vehicles. The grant money went to a biodiesel processor in a solar powered filling station on the MIT campus.

“I have seen that change can happen, and once it starts to happen, it’s much easier to keep it moving,” says senior Joe Roy-Mayhew, a chemical-biological engineering major, worked on the biodiesel project.

Large entities such as MIT can be slow moving and resist change, he says, but “my experience with Biodiesel@MIT has really exposed me to the magnitude of people who do significantly care about energy and the environment, and who are willing to devote much of their lives to these issues.”

The work of these students has been noteworthy, says Lanou, “We are using the campus as a learning laboratory to get students’ hands dirty on real-world challenges.”

(MIT has set up web pages to help students find energy-related courses in their areas of interest.)

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