“It’s growing nonstop,” says Tim Heidel of the MIT Energy Club — the fastest-growing extracurricular organization on campus. The club — which began six years ago with 20 students — now has more than 2,200 members.
“The interest level is at a fever pitch,” says co-president Forgan McIntosh. “MIT has a history of solving the world’s greatest problems, and is well suited to be a significant player in energy. When you think about the role that faculty, students, and alumni can play, it’s hard not to get excited.”
Recently, the group had lunch with the U.S. Energy Secretary and toured a nuclear reactor. Some members get better acquainted with the science of climate change, while others discuss national biofuel policy over dinner. MBAs say it’s a chance to learn about energy and technology, while science and engineering majors say they get more comfortable with business plans and how energy technologies are applied in industry.
The club — which is entirely volunteer run and hosts 70 events per year — organizes a couple events per week, from small discussion groups to social events. The 20-member executive committee regularly invites industry experts to campus to lead discussions on specific areas of research, say, electric vehicles, green buildings, or renewable energy. Students, faculty, alumni, and staff are invited to join the club, but 75 percent of the members are students.
“It’s a great network and a fantastic way to meet other people who are passionate about energy. And it’s a great way to broaden your knowledge,” says Heidel, co-president of the club and a post-doctoral associate whose research focuses on the future of the electric grid. “I’ve learned so much about how to make buildings more energy efficient — a topic I never would have learned about in the lab, because it isn’t my area of focus.”
CUT THROUGH RHETORIC
The point of the club is to build and strengthen community and to learn from each other, Heidel says. “We seek to cut through the rhetoric and learn the facts — whether it’s new technologies for coal plants or new technologies for wind plants. We’re interested in it all.”
One of the club’s main events is MIT Energy Night, held in the fall at the MIT Museum, which showcases the Institute’s most exciting energy research, education, and entrepreneurship. Last year, there were 1,500 visitors. It’s like a big energy party,” says Heidel, adding that the MIT Energy Conference, held each spring, is the club’s flagship event. So many hundreds of people showed up last year that this year they needed to hold it at a larger hotel. “The hallmark of the conference is that we bring together several different perspectives and get a great debate going,” he says.
At this year’s conference, CEOs, VPs, and other industry experts discussed the fields of technology, policy, industry, and finance. “The conference is great because it gives students the ability to hear perspectives from industry,” Heidel says.
McIntosh, an MBA student at MIT Sloan where he studies energy and finance, says that for him, the best part of the group is the diversity of the membership. “What this club does better than any organization I’ve seen, is it blends together people from different disciplines. As I travel across campus, I get to know people who have a different lens through which they see the world. My colleagues at Sloan are very business savvy, and a lot of engineers are more technically trained than we, but we are all focused on the same problem, which just generates a richer dialogue.”
ONE OF THE FIRST
MIT was one of the first universities to launch an energy club. The group became so popular a few years back that other clubs have now sprung up on local campuses. In fact, the MIT group recently launched the Collegiate Energy Association, a global network of university energy clubs, where there are now more than 50 schools. Club leaders regularly hold conference calls and visit each other’s campuses to enhance education and collaboration.
“Energy is a hot topic right now,” says Heidel. “Many students are coming to MIT just to study energy. They view it as the defining challenge of this generation and believe that it’s going to continue to be the hottest topic of the next several decades.
“Although the club has enjoyed great success, there are a lot of challenges ahead of us — climate change, national security, economics. Everyone is working right now to contribute in some way, but there is no silver bullet. There are a huge number of different solutions to the global energy problem — but the more of us there are — the more we will all contribute.”