STEM Geek & Proud Research With campus as a test bed, climate action starts and continues at MIT

With campus as a test bed, climate action starts and continues at MIT



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In 2015, MIT set a goal to reduce its annual greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 32 percent by the year 2030. Five years later, the Institute has reduced emissions by 24 percent, remaining on track to meet its goal over the next several years.

These most recent reduction data mark a 6 percent decrease — nearly 11,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions (MTCO2e) — from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2020. This year-over-year reduction was driven in part by gains in building-level energy efficiency investments, operational efficiency of the Central Utilities Plant (CUP), a reduction in carbon intensity of the electricity purchased from the New England power grid, a less-intense heating season, and a temporary de-densification of campus due to Covid-19 resulting in lower energy demand.

Cumulative efforts to reduce emissions

The net 24 percent reduction over five years accounts for a decrease of over 50,000 MTCO2e annually since the launch of the Plan for Action on Climate Change in 2015. The plan is guided by five pillars to address the global challenge of climate change through research, technology, education, and outreach, as well as calling on MIT to use its campus operations and community as a test bed for change.

This campus-as-a-test bed methodology empowers MIT to leverage faculty, students, and staff to test and demonstrate strategies for mitigating its own emissions. Strategies have focused on minimizing emissions through reducing the overall energy use, reducing the use of fossil fuels in campus buildings and vehicles, increasing the use of renewable energy sources, and minimizing the release of fugitive gases from campus operation. Marked improvement and investment has been seen in these areas over the past five years — from the CUP renewal to energy standards for an increasingly LEED-certified campus. Along with these efforts, research and coursework supports new cohorts of sustainability thinkers and doers making an impact on campus while working alongside staff, and priming MIT for an eventual goal of carbon neutrality.

This unique research-staff partnership has enabled MIT to make significant progress in reducing its emissions, explains Joe Higgins, vice president for campus services and stewardship: “We are fortunate to have so many dedicated and creative operational staff engaged in achieving our carbon reduction goal,” he says. “They continuously seek opportunities to collaborate with students, faculty and researchers who are tackling the climate challenges of our world.”

Mitigating campus emissions

MIT’s buildings account for the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions on campus, comprising 97 percent of all emissions tracked. To lessen the emissions of existing campus buildings, the Institute prioritized deep energy audits to identify those spaces that have high levels of energy consumption and the greatest potential for emissions reductions. These efforts, led by the Department of Facilities and supported by the Office of Campus Planning; Environment, Health, and Safety; and the the Office of Sustainability (MITOS), follow a process of study, design, and implementation of retrofits with features such as heat recovery, lighting upgrades, and enhanced building systems controls to reduce energy use and associated emissions — a process that is ongoing. “As buildings are regularly identified for these audits, energy enhancements and energy reductions are continually being realized across campus,” explains Carlo Fanone, director of facilities engineering. “These reductions are often not fully realized until one to two fiscal years after completing a project, so we remain on a cycle of launching new projects and seeing the impact completed projects have on reduced emissions.”

To mitigate the emissions impact of new buildings, the Institute adopted guidelines in 2016 that required all newly constructed campus buildings to achieve a minimum of LEED Gold certification (version 4). To date, more than 18 buildings and spaces at MIT are LEED certified, with two LEED Platinum buildings  — the highest possible rating offered by the U.S. Green Building Council, which certifies LEED projects. Additional reductions on campus have been achieved through eliminating the use of fuel oil in the existing power plant, as well as investments in its operational efficiency. With the significant capital renewal of the CUP coming online in 2021, its increased capacity and efficiency is expected to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 10 percent.

As ongoing campus efforts in a dense urban environment contribute to incremental emissions reductions, Institute leaders recognize the need for rapid global mitigation efforts that deploy strategies both on and off campus. To advance this, MIT entered into a power purchase agreement, or PPA, in 2016 that enabled the construction of Summit Farms, a 650-acre, 60-megawatt solar farm in North Carolina. Since then, MIT has benefited annually from the Institute’s 25-year commitment to purchase electricity generated through the PPA and in 2020 alone purchased 87,320 megawatt-hours of solar power, which offset over 28,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from on-campus operations.

Future forward

In utilizing the campus to test innovative ideas for local climate action, operational staff, researchers, students, and faculty all play a role. Through teaching 11.S938 / 2.S999 (Solving for Carbon Neutrality at MIT) and 11.S196 / 11.S946 (Exploring Sustainability at Different Scales) Director of Sustainability Julie Newman and mechanical engineering Professor Tim Gutowski have guided classes of graduate and undergraduate students in developing solutions for real-world sustainability challenges that tie back to campus. “This coursework has allowed us to engage students in thinking about climate change solutions through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — addressing a truly global challenge — and then taking that thinking and problem-solving approach to challenges and opportunities in our own backyard at MIT,” explains Newman, who also serves as a lecturer with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “Students start to think about climate action and carbon neutrality at different scales, which is the model we follow in the Office of Sustainability.”

Research solutions to campus challenges are also supported through the Campus Sustainability Incubator Fund — administered by MITOS — which has enabled more than a dozen MIT community members to use the campus itself for research in sustainable operations, management, and design. Past funded projects include on-site renewable energy storage systems, water capture and reuse at the CUP, and life-cycle impacts on building designs on campus. Currently, a team of researchers supported by the fund is focused on short- and long-term sustainable procurement, sourcing, and disposal strategies for personal protective equipment at MIT, with a focus on solutions scalable beyond campus.

Data and future work

As MIT looks to meet its reduction goal, data collection and analysis remain key to measuring and mitigating emissions. MIT continually works to collect the full picture of this impact and in 2019 began developing a preliminary analysis of the Institute’s Scope 3, or indirect, greenhouse gas emissions. This is done to inform MIT’s total greenhouse gas emissions activities — in addition to Scopes 1 and 2 — and explore where strategic opportunities may exist to reduce emissions beyond what MIT is currently tracking. Through this effort, MIT has been collecting available emissions data, including those of purchased goods and services, MIT-sponsored travel, commuting, and capital goods (furniture, fixtures, tools, etc.) using the World Resources Institute/ World Business Council for Sustainable Development GHG Protocol for Scope 3 framework. 

The effort to capture a complete emissions picture reflects the ongoing work of MIT to rapidly understand and address its own contributions to climate change. As MIT looks to 2030 and its continued climate action work, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber says the MIT community will remain an important part of the work and envisioning the future, which includes a new climate action plan. “MIT is ahead of the schedule we set for ourselves to reduce net carbon emissions,” says Zuber, who oversees MIT’s Plan for Action on Climate Change. “But the climate crisis demands that we make even faster progress. Our new climate plan will set a more ambitious goal that everyone in our community will have a role in meeting.”

Read more: news.mit.edu

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