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Shivering, Not Sweating, in the Heat

Time for the Energy Initiative to Address Conservation On Campus

Rosa Cao

Al Gore must be feeling pretty vindicated this week, with scorching temperatures making themselves felt across the country. Here on campus, Facilities had to reduce cooling to parts of campus, and “energy production was strained all over the Institute” on Wednesday, according to an MIT news office article.

How ironic then, that I’ve spent many of my working hours in the last week shivering in a lab in Building 46 where frigid air comes blasting out of ceiling vents. It seems that I wasn’t alone; in an MIT News Office article published Wednesday, graduate student Jason Orcutt justified his purchase of hot coffee at Bosworth’s on a steamy day when outside temperatures reached 98 degrees, saying “my lab is about 65 degrees.”

Meanwhile, others complained that campus was insufficiently air-conditioned on a regular basis, and when Facilities decided to “shed [some of the] cooling load” on Wednesday, some were driven from their work. A student who works in Building 18 said that his chemistry lab was about 85 degrees on Wednesday morning (thereby explaining his lounging presence in the student center).

Testing the temps

Two weeks ago, during a period of more typical summer weather (high 80s and humid), I took an admittedly unscientific survey of sites around campus. I found significant variation in the temperature, from a chilly 68 degrees (and surprisingly windy) in the corridor of Building 14N and the lobby outside 26-100, to 80 degrees in the heavily trafficked Infinite between Killian Court and Mass Ave.

What struck me most on my tour of campus with a pair of lab thermometers was how cold entryways and hallways were relative to the offices and laboratories where people presumably spent more time.

For example, the McGovern entrance to building 46, a cavernous three-story space with a glass wall on one side was still at 68 degrees during the partial shutdown on Wednesday. Worse, when I stood outside I could feel cold air streaming out through a half-centimeter crack between the doors and the wall. At the same time, the Zesiger Center gym was pushing a sweaty 80 degrees. It’s not clear which one was contributing more to productivity. And why are places like the entrance to Building 4 from Killian Court, and the elevated hallway connecting Buildings 12 and 24, so overheated in the winter?

What is to be done?

Ideally, everyone would be able to regulate their local temperature for their needs and comfort. While this may not be possible in older buildings, where the whole building is on one thermostat, Peter Cooper, manager of sustainable engineering and utility planning in the Department of Facilities, confirmed that “MIT buildings built in the last ten years, or spaces that have undergone major renovation have that capability.” Furthermore, he said “the people who are paying for the energy would be supportive of … individual control of each space, so that we could change spaces to people’s liking or program [the thermostats].”

Currently, the target temperature for campus buildings connected to the central cooling/heating system is 70 degrees, that being the temperature at which the fewest call to
complain, according to Cooper. Over the years, people have pushed for lower temperatures in the summer, as the oil crisis of the 70s receded, and people became more accustomed to air conditioning at home.

If we sacrificed cooling to low traffic or non-work areas even in high-priority buildings with animal facilities such as 66, maybe there would be more chilled water to go around for other labs, offices, and common spaces.

If work spaces really are colder than they need to be in the summer, or warmer than they need to be in the winter, then MIT could save energy as well as increase comfort and give people a better sense of control over their work environment.

I’m guessing that people would be less motivated to complain about the temperature in hallways and entrances than in their offices and labs. If we could raise the set temperature in low traffic areas in summer (and lower it in winter), there could be significant energy savings. Cooper said a common rule of thumb for winter was that a one-degree drop in the thermostat setting resulted in about three percent savings in energy.

Overnight settings are another opportunity to save (or waste) energy. “In the wintertime, we lower the temperature set point to 65 degrees, usually done on a whole building basis, and lower the heating. But in a research area, people are there into the night, so some of these temperature setbacks for the off-hours are overridden,” Cooper said. With better local control, people could only maintain the temperature in their working areas, letting a more conservative thermostat regulate the unoccupied parts of the building.

Barriers to conservation

With a school full of engineers, it can’t be that hard to find a good way to program a smart thermostat. What’s more, MIT is an energy conscious campus (just look at Mr. Cooper’s title), especially since President Hockfield announced the new Energy Initiative — so why aren’t we doing more to conserve?

Cooper said that the main barrier to implementation was neither good will nor good ideas, but a lack of resources. “It’s a matter of allocating resources and capital.”

For now, “energy cost has not been a serious enough issue for MIT to force people to suffer in warmer or colder temperatures,” said Cooper, adding that he thinks a greater motivation for conservation would be because “people become concerned about global warming and the environment.”

Another reason may be the lack of immediate consequences. As Cooper elaborated: “One of the problems in research buildings is that the energy cost goes into the overhead rate, and all the departments use the same overhead rate for federal government sponsored research. It’s very socialized, so the [financial] benefit that you would get from running a more efficient lab wouldn’t come back to you personally at all.”

The lack of incentive extend to other areas as well. While most MIT dorms do not have central air conditioning, many students buy and install their own window units. As students pay a flat rate , MIT Housing pays for the electricity these units (which are considerably less efficient than the central chilled water system) consume. Similarly, vendors in Lobdell and in the student center such as LaVerde’s have large open coolers for cold drinks. While these units are notoriously inefficient compared to refrigerators with doors, the cost of electricity is included in the rent for these businesses, which then have little motivation to cut back.

Cooper added that a more sophisticated metering system would allow his department to better measure usage, and help them push for changes in consumption behavior. “It’s hard to engineer improvements without being able to record actual usage … and it’s easier to get behavior changes if we can play that data back to people.” Unfortunately, “these [improvements] are hard to sell because they are not very sexy, but they would make us able to do a better job in running the Institute more efficiently, and would have an environmental impact [by reducing] CO2 emissions.”

Asked for a right-here-right-now tip to save energy, Cooper asked that those who work in labs with fume hoods close the sashes. According to Professor Leon R. Glicksman from the Department of Architecture, a fume hood uses more energy than a home does on an annual basis – and leaving a sash open is like leaving the doors and windows open in winter and summer. Buildings with many hoods consume two or three times more energy than the campus average, at least partly due to the temperate air lost even when the hoods are not in active use.

Given current energy prices, and their uncertain future, it would be fiscally prudent to cut unnecessary expenditures of energy.

A strong basis for further action

Significant steps have already been taken: thanks to a ten-year environmental initiative, MIT has some of the most efficient power generation in the area, with a natural gas fueled cogeneration plant providing steam, chilled water, and power to supply up to 80 percent of the campus’ needs. (The rest comes from NSTAR). A 20 megawatt gas turbine produces electricity, with waste heat from the process going to steam generation. In the winter, heaters for most of main campus use steam, while in the summer, the steam drives the machinery to produce chilled water for air conditioning. Cooling the air is actually more efficient than heating it; because the chilled water is generated through evaporation, to remove 100 btus of heat from the air, it takes only about 50 btus of steam.

Cooper provided rough estimates for resource use: over the course of a year 60 percent of energy use on campus is for heating and cooling, while 40 percent supplies electricity for computers, equipment, fans, etc.

MIT has claimed a commitment to tackling the world’s energy problems. It may not be as glamorous, but the Institute should demonstrate an equally strong commitment to providing an environment that is not only conducive to innovation and advancement of knowledge, but also socially and environmentally responsible.

Conservation is often perceived to be a matter of personal virtue. But a small adjustment by MIT can have a much greater effect, both in concrete and symbolic terms, than even the most heroic efforts of self-denial by an individual. So give Facilities the resources they need to maximize what we get from our burn.

Americans find conservation inconvenient, they tend to argue that technology will solve our energy and environmental woes before it becomes necessary to cut back on our consummatory vices. That kind of attitude is what led our federal government to opt out of the Kyoto accords, preferring to concentrate on more tax breaks for futuristic-sounding fuel cell research. Should MIT follow that example? Do we only care about innovation and not about practical application of existing remedies?

A better course would be for the Institute to continue to pursue many possible avenues towards solving a large and ever-growing challenge. We know there will probably not
be a single breakthrough that will solve our energy problems. As a symbol of how things should be done, MIT should allocate some of those Energy Initiative funds to making a sound financial, social, and environmental investment in energy conservation on campus.

Do you have an example of egregious energy waste in your area? Please send your examples to