A new era of energy efficiency and sustainability was ushered in five years ago, when the MIT Energy Initiative’s Campus Energy Task Force facilitated the development of a campus program to reduce energy use, enhance energy education, and provide a model of intelligent energy practices for the U.S. and the world. Now, that effort — which has transformed MIT’s campus into a living laboratory — already has paid off. Last year, MIT saved $3.5 million and reduced its energy use by 5%.

“The Task Force relies on participation from the entire MIT community — faculty, students, and staff. This was one of the first cases where people across campus pitched in and made significant contributions,” says Leon Glicksman, professor of building technology and mechanical engineering, co-chair of the Task Force along with Israel Ruiz, MIT’s executive vice president and treasurer. That collaborative effort is among the Task Force’s major achievements, Glicksman says, adding that key to the group’s success has been engagement of many MIT administrative departments including Facilities; Environment, Health and Safety; Information Services and Technology; and Student Life.

What began as a small group of pilot projects has led to an Institute-wide phenomenon. Now, students have access to a richer learning experience because of an expanded energy curriculum and introduction of dozens of new Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programs (UROP) and internships. Additionally, MIT has been recognized for achievements in sustainability locally and nationally.

MIT’s multiple energy-saving projects include renewal of steam traps in older buildings. A study of steam trap units across campus, for example, revealed that many units were failing, resulting in huge energy waste. The updates now save MIT $800,000 per year in energy costs, and the initial project costs were recouped within one year.

Another project involved reducing the air volume used in chemical fume hoods. Controlled experiments showed that reducing the airflow by 20% through the open sash could still guarantee a safe working environment. As a result, the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research recently installed new low-flow hoods operating at the lower air volume requirement. The Koch Institute — MIT’s first LEED gold certified laboratory building — uses 35% less energy than a standard laboratory building saving more than $1.3 million a year.

As a result of these and other successes, in 2010 MIT partnered with its utility NSTAR to create the region’s largest energy efficiency program. This partnership, Efficiency Forward, aims to create a new model for enhanced utility efficiency programs. MIT has committed to reduce its energy use by 34 million kilowatt hours (kWh) — equivalent to 15% of its electrical use — over the course of three years through lighting updates, HVAC upgrades, and sustainable design. In 2011, MIT surpassed its first-year energy reduction goal by a third, saving 13 million kWh. In the second year, MIT saved an additional 10 million kWh, surpassing its two-year goal.

One of many benefits of the MIT-NSTAR partnership is MIT’s access to NSTAR’s preferred rates for equipment and service. Recently, NSTAR facilitated the replacement of more than 700 refrigerators in dorms across campus to more energy-efficient models. The new ones use a mere 40 watts of energy and are expected to reduce overall energy use by more than 30%.

A Living Lab

“Students are now able to use the campus as a test bed for their ideas, and the results benefit both the students and the Institute,” says Steve Lanou, deputy director of environmental sustainability, adding that opportunities for students to engage in energy research have increased during the past five years.

Thirty UROPs and internships focused on energy have been supported by the Task Force, and more than 45 student projects have been supported through the MITEI Student Campus Energy Project Fund. Recently supported projects include a compact fluorescent bulb exchange program, dorm electricity competitions, and graduate dorm metering and monitoring systems.

With many near-term goals now met, Glicksman and Ruiz aim to amplify the impact of efficiency programs, engage more people on campus, and communicate on a global scale. A specific goal, Glicksman says, is to complete a long-range campus energy study, to help chart MIT’s energy roadmap for the next 20 years. Working with the Education Task Force, the pair hopes to increase energy-related class projects, and obtain funding for energy-related graduate research and UROPs.