Under its “Fast Forward” climate action plan, which was announced in May 2021, MIT has set a goal of eliminating direct emissions from its campus by 2050. An important near-term milestone will be achieving net-zero emissions by 2026. Many other colleges and universities have set similar targets. What does it take to achieve such a dramatic reduction?
The on-campus reductions have come primarily from a major upgrade to MIT’s Central Utilities Plant, which provides electricity, heating, and cooling for about 80 percent of all Institute buildings. The upgraded plant, which uses advanced cogeneration technology, became fully operational at the end of 2021 and is meeting campus energy needs at greater efficiency and lower carbon intensity (on average 15 to 25 percent cleaner) compared to the regional electricity grid. Carbon reductions from the increased efficiency provided by the enhanced plant are projected to counter the added greenhouse gas emissions caused by recently completed and planned construction and operation of new buildings on campus, especially energy-intensive laboratory buildings.
Energy from the plant is delivered to campus buildings through MIT’s district energy system, a network of underground pipes and power lines providing electricity, heating, and air conditioning. With this adaptable system, MIT can introduce new technologies as they become available to increase the system’s energy efficiency. The system enables MIT to export power when the regional grid is under stress and to import electricity from the power grid as it becomes cleaner, likely over the next decade as the availability of offshore wind and renewable resources increases. “At the same time, we are reviewing additional technology options such as industrial-scale heat pumps, thermal batteries, geothermal exchange, microreactors, bio-based fuels, and green hydrogen produced from renewable energy,” Higgins says.