Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, launched in May 2021, charges MIT to eliminate its direct carbon emissions by 2050. Setting an interim goal of net zero emissions by 2026 is an important step to getting there. Joe Higgins, vice president for campus services and stewardship, speaks here about the coordinated, multi-team effort underway to address the Institute’s carbon-reduction goals, the challenges and opportunities in getting there, and creating a blueprint for a carbon-free campus in 2050.
Q: The Fast Forward plan acknowledges the challenges we face in our efforts to reach our campus emission reduction goals, in part due to the current state of New England’s electrical grid. How does MIT’s district energy system factor into our approach?
A: MIT’s district energy system is a network of underground pipes and power lines that moves energy from the Central Utilities Plant (CUP) around to the vast majority of Institute buildings to provide electricity, heating, and air conditioning. Using a closed-loop, central-source system like this enables MIT to operate more efficiently by using less energy to heat and cool its buildings and labs, and by maintaining better load control to accommodate seasonal variations in peak demand.
When the new MIT campus was built in Cambridge in 1916, it included a centralized state-of-the-art steam and electrical power plant that would service the campus buildings. This central district energy approach allowed MIT to avoid having individual furnaces in each building and to easily incorporate progressively cleaner fuel sources campus-wide over the years. After starting with coal as a primary energy source, MIT transitioned to fuel oil, then to natural gas, and then to cogeneration in 1995 — and each step has made the campus more energy efficient. Our continuous investment in a centralized infrastructure has facilitated our ability to improve energy efficiency while adding capacity; as new technologies become available, we can implement them across the entire campus. Our district energy system is very adaptable to seasonal variations in demand for cooling, heating and electricity, and builds upon decades of centralized investments in energy-efficient infrastructure.
This past year, MIT completed a major upgrade of the district energy system whereby the majority of buildings on campus now benefit from the most advanced cogeneration technology for combined heating, cooling, and power delivery. This system generates electrical power that produces 15 to 25% less carbon than the current New England grid. We also have the ability to export power during times when the grid is most stressed, which contributes to the resiliency of local energy systems. On the flip side, any time the grid is a cleaner option, MIT is able to import a higher amount of electricity from the utility by distributing this energy through our centralized system. In fact, it's important to note that we have the ability to import 100% of our electrical energy from the grid as it becomes cleaner. We anticipate that this will happen as the next major wave of technology innovation unfolds and the abundance of offshore wind and other renewable resources increases as anticipated by the end of this decade. As the grid gets greener, our adaptable district energy system will bring us closer to meeting our decarbonization goals.