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MIT students win US Department of Energy Better Buildings Challenge

Winning streak continues for third straight year in nation-wide contest to develop energy-efficient solutions.
MIT's Better Buildings Case Competition team poses in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. From left to right: Brian Bowen, Julia Sokol, Philip Kreycik, Delphine Kaiser, Cheetiri Smith, Young Jin Kim, and Samir Luther. Not pictured: Akshay Dayal.
MIT's Better Buildings Case Competition team poses in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. From left to right: Brian Bowen, Julia Sokol, Philip Kreycik, Delphine Kaiser, Cheetiri Smith, Young Jin Kim, and Samir Luther. Not pictured: Akshay Dayal.
Photo: Brian Bowen

A team of eight MIT undergraduate and graduate students won two awards in this year’s U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Better Buildings Case Competition, out of more than 150 students from across the country. The wins mean that MIT students have taken home two prizes from the competition in each of the three years it has taken place.

The Case Competition engages the next generation of engineers, entrepreneurs, and policymakers to develop creative solutions to real-world energy efficiency problems for businesses and other organizations. It is part of a White House-DOE Better Buildings Initiative to make commercial and industrial buildings 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020 and to accelerate private sector investment in energy efficiency.

This year’s competition took place in Washington, D.C., on March 14. The MIT team, First Fuel, was led by urban studies and planning graduate students Brian Bowen and Phil Kreycik. They won in two of the six real-world case studies.

Best Proposal – Experimenting with Efficiency: Greening the grant process for research institutions

Students: Philip Kreycik (urban studies and planning, civil and environmental engineering), Akshay Dayal (management), Delphine Kaiser (mechanical engineering, ‘15), Cheetiri Smith (mechanical engineering, ‘14)

Description: This team was asked to develop a business case and implementation strategy for universities to promote energy efficiency in laboratories funded with external grants, and to recommend changes to the federal government’s grant policies that would enable university laboratories to conserve more energy.

Plan: The team recommended a three-pronged strategy for the federal government to reduce energy costs by changing the financial incentives and by disseminating information to research labs. First: establish efficiency standards for the most energy intensive lab equipment, including fume hoods and ultra low temperature freezers. Equipment not meeting these standards would not be eligible for grant funding. Second: change the indirect cost recovery calculation to reduce the amount of energy expenses that can be claimed, while simultaneously providing new funds for energy conservation. And third: mandate that a best-energy-practices training be required of all lab staff to inform them of simple changes they could make and how much energy they would save.

The team then explained how a university should structure its energy-management efforts in research laboratories. The theme was to use a combination of top-down and bottom-up support to motivate action at all levels. The first recommendation was to obtain and leverage a university-wide commitment to energy efficiency with a tangible goal, both to provide accountability toward meeting the commitment for administrators and to provide incentives and recognition for those decision-makers who achieve exemplary energy conservation results. Other recommendations included the development of standards and policies for operations and renovations and the employment of peer-learning programs among researchers to build grassroots support and social norms of sustainable behaviors. The team demonstrated the effectiveness of such strategies by citing the success of several leading universities in mobilizing researchers toward a common goal of sustainable operations.

Most Innovative – Electri-City: Energy management in public buildings

Students: Brian Bowen (urban studies and planning), Young Jin Kim (electrical engineering and computer science), Samir Luther (management), Julia Sokol (mechanical engineering)

Description: This team was asked to create a long-term energy management plan for a fictional mid-sized city, “Electri-City,” that has set a 10-year, 20-percent energy reduction goal for a portfolio of 150 public buildings. The city has limited capital for large-scale upgrades and does not have a firm grasp on energy usage from each facility.

Plan: The team’s plan, “ReCharge” (which, once adopted by cities would carry the city’s name, such as “ReCharge Boston”), uses creative financing and community engagement solutions. First, the students recommend that the city establish a revolving loan fund, which allows energy efficiency projects to pay for themselves through avoided utility costs. Revolving funds are also self-sustaining, which facilitates the financing of future projects. More innovative still, the team recommended implementing a two-step crowdfunding campaign. The first step would utilize a civic crowdfunding platform, like, to promote a community-focused energy efficiency project such as retrofitting a library or community theater — any facility with a strong community focus.

Next, the team recommended that the city enable its public employees — the people who interact with its buildings each day — to contribute to the revolving loan fund through a “ReCharge Account.” Employees could elect to defer a small portion of their paycheck (around 1 percent) to this account to be received as a “holiday bonus” at the end of the year. In the meantime, the deferred funds would flow into the revolving loan fund. Although these accounts provide only a small portion of the City’s financing, by getting employees to invest their own money into the program, they can create more energy-efficient behavior among employees.

Read more about this year’s Better Buildings Case Competition.

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