Man Behind the Scenes

An Interview with Peter Cooper

Peter Cooper is the manager of sustainability engineering and utility planning in the Department of Facilities. He has worked closely with student groups on a number of sustainability projects, some of which arose from the Generator events and are currently in progress. He's the go-to man for everything you never knew you wanted to know about how MIT's physical plant is run.

Cooper also works on on-campus conservation projects implemented by Facilities. He gave numbers that estimated savings from water reclamation and energy conservation projects at over $370,000 over the past couple of years. He participates in the decision making process for designing new buildings and looking for ways to make them more efficient, and acts as a liaison in collaborations outside MIT.

In the early '90s, Cooper worked at a the treatment plant on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. Because energy was so cheap at that time, conservation wasn't "a driver" for the owners of the plant. But Cooper says that despite the lack of financial incentives, "engineers tend to go straight for the [optimal] solution."

His work on conservation when he came to MIT "wasn't a big leap, because doing better environmentally is the same as doing better," just as a more sophisticated engineer saves energy. Cooper and Walter Henry, director of the Systems Engineering Group, agreed that although energy concerns are once more in the public consciousness, particularly at MIT, the will to change one's behavior and the seriousness of people's commitment to conservation were greater during the oil crisis of the '70s. "When you're waiting in line for gasoline, you really have time to think hard and deep about energy conservation."

Cooper and others in Facilities have also made some of their office space available for different student groups to meet and work. They've left signs of their activity in the form of diagrams scrawled on the whiteboard walls.

Here Cooper talks about some of the groups that's he's interacted with recently (you can see blurbs about some of the student groups in our list on page E4).

The Generator

There's been a lot more collaboration between Facilities and these student groups in the past year, stemming in part from the Generator event, which really seems to have gotten them moving. Bureaucracy can be pretty intimidating, and so some of it is getting data, or telling them the reality about the quality of the data, it's trying to help them do what they want to do or something similar, or finding the right people to talk to.

The Green Fund

This would be a revolving loan fund, modeled on similar funds at Harvard and the University of California system. It allows projects to borrow from the loan to implement improvements in the way energy is used, and then the loan is "paid" back with the money saved by conserving energy. Cooper says that Harvard calculated the return on investment for its green campus loan fund to be about 30 percent, a higher rate of return than even its stellar-performing endowment can provide.

Something that costs some money, saves some energy, and pays for itself in two-three years ought to be a repeatable process, but it does take a lot of senior management to deal with."

"At Harvard the fund started at about two, three million dollars, and they doubled it and doubled it again, and now it's 12 million. That's enough that you could add several million dollars to a new building project, so that you can buy some energy efficient measure or feature that the building capital budget couldn't sustain, but it's a good investment for the university to do."

"[Theresa M.] Stone is now the permanent EVP [executive vice president], she's very interested in considering the life-cycle cost of how we design buildings, and how we do energy conservation projects. It's hard to get some of these policy initiatives decided upon. But we're hopeful that we'll be able to make the case, it's such an obvious thing … and if it's on the order of two or three million dollars, we can do quite a lot of energy and water conservation measures with that."

Team-Wind: a group from 5.92

Cooper is also involved in the 5.92 freshman project-based class on sustainability. He's worked with one group of students to look into potential sites for wind power on campus. While the amount of electricity generated would be relatively modest (the four-foot diameter fans would generate about half a kilowatt each), several could be installed on each building. To find the best sites for the mini-turbines, the group put wind instruments on about eight or nine buildings on campus.

They [would] build a small wind-turbine that balances right on the edge of a building, so it gets the wind that's coming up over the edge. There's a concentrated place maybe about five feet over the front edge of a building, where the wind is coming over much faster than the normal speed. Of course, it's only making power when the wind is blowing in that direction, but then not having to build a tower, it's a much cheaper installation. If you had 10 of them, you could get five kilowatts on a building."

Cambridge Energy Alliance

Cooper is MIT's representative at the Cambridge Energy Alliance, which includes Harvard and MIT as well as the City of Cambridge. The organization plans to bring about 70 million dollars to promote energy conservation throughout the city, which is quite a new thing. According to the Boston Globe, the new non-profit intends to offer low-interest loans to help property owners throughout the city remediate energy inefficiencies, starting with the largest consumers.

"MIT is about 10 percent of the city's power consumption: Cambridge is 350 megawatts, and we peak at 35 megawatts, but 20 of that is from the cogen plant. There are other places [in Cambridge] where combined heat and power would be a good application, so there are some participants who want to use the fund for that, and maybe finding a way so that people can pay it through their electric bill. That requires organization with financial people and with the utility; the City [of Cambridge] folks are very progressive. But the major part will be about regular energy conservation, and getting the word out."

One of the ways to address inefficiencies is to expand the use of Combined Heat and Energy (another name for cogeneration). Based on his experience putting the MIT cogeneration plant on the grid, Cooper provides "friendly help and advice," to those who would like to learn from MIT's experience. Last week he had a meeting with representatives interested in implementing CHE for Gillette, which currently operates a large factory on Fort Point Channel by South Station in Boston.

Dorm electricity competition

This is a competition to see which of the undergraduate dorms can reduce its energy use the most per student as the result of active conservation measures by its residents. The winning dorm will win $10,000 from the office of the Dean for Student Life, to be used for retrofits to improve the dorm's energy efficiency. Cooper worked with the organizers to figure out how to keep track of consumption.

"There are meters in all the buildings, but the data has to be read manually once a week. The hero here is [Utilities Cost Accountant Patricia K. Magner], she actually deals with all that data, and she developed special meter reading sheets, and we had to make sure that some of the confusion of subtracting this reading from that reading was clarified. We worked at getting the data to the students. And of course Housing will enjoy the energy savings."

New buildings

Cooper is also involved in a solar project for the new graduate dormitory NW35. The plan is to install solar thermal collectors on the roof, providing all the hot water not just for NW35 but for Sidney-Pacific next door as well.

"It won't heat the building in the winter time, but it's a pretty significant amount of energy." The main challenge will be to make sure that it doesn't slow down construction on the building, which is on a tight schedule to open by Fall 2008.

Thanks to an "integrative" design process that allowed contractors, architects, and the MIT project managers to go through multiple iterations of possible designs and optimize parameters for energy-efficiency, the greenest building on campus will soon be the new Sloan building E62, which is currently under construction and due to open in 2010.

Future directions

Cooper and others in Facilities and the administration are working on the impressively named Utilities Master Plan, which considers everything from new conservation measures to an expansion of MIT's 20 megawatt cogeneration plant, which would require a significant capital investment.

"In the Walk the Talk white paper, [produced] for the Energy Research Council, if we could just reduce energy consumption 20 percent by conservation, and if we expanded our steam and electricity capacity using cogeneration [instead of buying the difference from the utility company], we could cut CO2 emissions by about 120,000 tons."

The trade-off is, "If you spend the least capital, you end up with the most inefficient campus and the highest operating cost. Spend more on buildings and cogeneration, and you have more efficient conversion. But it's a matter of MIT allocating the capital for that versus for new science buildings — there are a lot of very good things for MIT to spend its capital on." In terms of seeing immediate returns, "retrofitting old buildings will be the first thing to buy, whereas cogeneration will have a longer payback."

To find out more about Facilities conservation projects around campus, see