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Steven Amanti spent a good chunk of his senior year at MIT spying on his fellow students and researchers. From November 2005 to April 2006, during the day and at odd hours of the night, he made innumerable visits to Building 18, which houses 40 chemistry labs. He peered into those labs, took time-lapse photographs, and jotted down notes, recording behavior he would later characterize as excessive, irresponsible, and even dangerous.

As part of his thesis for a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Amanti was documenting the ways energy was being wasted in the building, one of the biggest energy consumers on campus. On the basis of his observations, he estimated that MIT was squandering as much as $350,000 a year on heating, cooling, and electricity it didn’t need–just for that one building. And, he said, the Institute could stop this waste by taking steps that would cost almost nothing.

Amanti’s investigations happened to coincide with the beginning of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), a major effort to promote energy research and education at the Institute. When President Susan Hockfield discussed the initiative in November 2005, she said that in addition to spawning innovative, eco-friendly energy technologies, itwas also meant to inspire change in the way the Institute itself uses resources: “I very much hope that we will also lead by example and … model sustainable energy practices on our campus.”

Since then, MIT has taken steps to make this happen. New buildings going up on campus were designed to be more energy efficient than conventional buildings. And faculty, staff, and students working on several different projects have uncovered energy-wasting equipment and practices across campus that could add up to millions of dollars a year. A group of students from the Sloan School of Management, for example, worked with the facilities department to identify energy-saving projects costing $14 million that could pay for themselves in less than three years. Already, a $765,000 investment in a two-year project is saving the Institute about $800,000 a year.

To get projects like these off the ground, last year MIT’s executive vice president and treasurer, Theresa Stone, set up a new MIT Energy Conservation Investment Fund with seed money of $500,000. Alumni have since pitched in an additional $1.5 million to the MITEI Campus Energy Task Force Fund, including a $1 million gift from Jeffrey Silverman ‘68 establishing the ­Silverman Evergreen Energy Fund. The money saved through the projects paid for by these funds will be reinvested in other conservation projects.

But operating a research institute sustainably is no easy task. Labs consume far more energy than offices or residences, largely by necessity. What’s more, plenty of “green” companies are eager to sell solutions that might not really work. “One of the institutional obstacles to doing something about energy efficiency is the perceived uncertainty about costs and savings,” says Steven Lanou, MCP ‘98, deputy director for environmental sustainability in MIT’s Environment, Health, and Safety Headquarters Office and a member of the MIT Energy Initiative’s Campus Energy Task Force. “There’s often skepticism about promises of conservation. What’s the bang for my buck really going to be?”

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Credit: Bob O'Connor
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