DUSP students develop energy efficiency plan for Cambridge

Kathryn O’Neill    ·    December 16, 2013    ·    MITEI

Graduate students taking a spring 2013 practicum in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) urged utilities and government leaders to consider a range of innovative approaches to the thorny problem of how to spur energy efficiency upgrades in multifamily housing.

Working with and for real clients—NSTAR Electric and Gas and the City of Cambridge—the students developed a multifaceted pilot program to address the 84% of Cambridge households that live in multifamily dwellings. This population has proved hard to reach with the Mass Save residential energy efficiency program, funded by several Massachusetts utilities including NSTAR, which has so far been most successful at encouraging energy efficiency upgrades in single-family homes.

“NSTAR and the City of Cambridge wanted our students to explore new approaches to encourage multifamily building owners to more frequently pursue efficiency upgrades, especially in the 2-20-unit buildings typical of Cambridge and many older communities,” says Harvey Michaels, director of DUSP’s Energy Efficiency Strategy Project and instructor for the class: 11.S948 Community Energy Innovations. “In this type of building, there is a split incentive between landlord and tenants,” he says, noting that while landlords bear the cost of building upgrades, they don’t often see the rewards of lowered utility bills because those are typically paid by tenants.

“We are continually looking to better understand and address the structural barriers to energy efficiency, and courses such as this bring sustained attention to those issues,” says Tilak Subrahmanian, NSTAR’s vice president for energy efficiency. “Working with MIT students on energy efficiency strategy provides us with rigorous debate that stretches our thinking, and we are certainly better off for it.“

Cambridge Mayor Henrietta Davis says that addressing the energy woes of the city’s multifamily housing stock is an important step if the city is to meet the challenges presented by climate change. “Eighty percent of our energy use is in buildings,” she says. “Most of that is commercial buildings, but next, within the residential sector, it’s multifamilies.”

To familiarize students with all of the project’s stakeholders, the class began with a series of presentations by government and industry experts, including state and Cambridge officials, NSTAR representatives, and contractors who perform energy upgrades. Students also interviewed Cambridge residents, property managers, and multifamily housing advocates to ascertain the needs of the community.

“I learned a lot about the institutional framework that energy efficiency programs work in, a lot of the stakeholders involved, and what their motivators are,” says Ryan Cook, a DUSP graduate student in the course.

“That was what made this practicum difficult,” says DUSP graduate student Alex Marks. “We had to really think very broadly about our message and how that would work for a variety of different audiences.”

MIT Energy Innovations Symposium

On April 26, the students presented their initial proposals at the MIT Energy Innovations Symposium. The half-day event was attended by about 60 people, including Davis; Bradford Swing, Boston’s director of energy policy and programs; and representatives from NSTAR, the US Department of Energy, and several efficiency service providers. “This is just one example of how MIT has been leading on walking the talk and helping others to do the same,” Davis says.

The student presentations were followed by roundtable discussions focused on the proposals. “We got a lot of movers and shakers in the room together, and we led a discussion of what this multi-family program might look like,” Cook says. “It was great to have these practitioners taking us seriously.”

The students described how NSTAR and Cambridge could join forces in a new program specifically targeted at multifamily housing. Key features of the program include:

“We were very focused on social marketing—working through existing community groups—to get people to think about audits because they’re likely to benefit,” says Lawrence E. Susskind, MIT’s Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning and a co-instructor for the class. “People roll their eyes if you say [improving efficiency] has to be done neighborhood by neighborhood, but that’s really the scale at which change is happening.”

Improving student housing

Students also addressed two key concerns for the tenants of Cambridge’s multifamily housing—household comfort and environmental impact. “Students are experts at living as tenants in these 100-year-old buildings,” Michaels says. “In many of these buildings, tenants can’t control the heat. But fixing the comfort problem isn’t yet addressed by the Mass Save energy efficiency program.”

The value of comfort is obvious to tenants, however, so the MIT students suggested that the pilot program offer a number of energy-saving technologies that would also enhance comfort, such as steam radiator controls and Internet-enabled thermostats. Since Cambridge residents are very eco-conscious, students also proposed providing landlords, tenants, and prospective tenants with more information about the energy efficiency of buildings as well as about how home energy savings can reduce their carbon footprints.

“Our heart was in trying to make the off-campus experience for students better,” Marks says. “MIT students come here and want to learn about how to make the world a better place, yet they’re in highly energy-inefficient homes.”

Following the April symposium, students took the feedback from stakeholders and refined their proposal, submitting a final report in May. “This was a very cool project because it confronted a lot of the institutional barriers to energy efficiency,” Cook says.

NSTAR and Cambridge are continuing to evaluate the plan. Other supporters of the MIT Energy Efficiency Strategy Project, which funded this practicum, include the US Department of Energy and its National Renewable Energy Lab, and the Edison Foundation Institute for Electric Efficiency.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.


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