MIT Energy Conference goes virtual

Annual student-run energy conference pivots to successful online event with short notice in response to the coronavirus.

Turner Jackson MITEI

For the past 14 years, the MIT Energy Conference—a two-day event organized by energy students—has united students, faculty, researchers, and industry representatives from around the world to discuss cutting-edge developments in energy.

Under the supervision of Thomas “Trey” Wilder, an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and a large team of student event organizers, the final pieces for the 2020 conference were falling into place by early March—and then the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States. As the Institute canceled in-person events to reduce the spread of the virus, much of the planning that had gone into hosting the conference in its initial format was upended.

The Energy Conference team had less than a month to transition the entire event—scheduled for early April—online.

During the conference’s opening remarks, Wilder recounted the month leading up to the event. “Coincidently, the same day that we received the official notice that all campus events were canceled, we had a general body Energy Club meeting,” says Wilder. “All the leaders looked at each other in disbelief — seeing a lot of the work that we had put in for almost a year now, seemingly go down the drain. We decided that night to retain whatever value we could find from this event.”

The team immediately started contacting vendors and canceling orders, issuing refunds to guests, and informing panelists and speakers about the conference’s new format.

“One of the biggest issues was getting buy-in from the speakers. Everyone was new to this virtual world back at the end of March. Our speakers didn’t know what this was going to look like, and many backed out,” says Wilder. The team worked hard to find new speakers, with one even being brought on 12 hours before the start of the event.

Another challenge posed by taking the conference virtual was learning the ins and outs of running a Zoom webinar in a remarkably short time frame. “With the webinar, there are so many functions that the host controls that really affect the outcome of the event. Similarly, the speakers didn’t quite know how to operate it, either.”

In spite of the multitude of challenges posed by switching to an online format on a tight deadline, this year’s coordinating team managed to pull off an incredibly informative and timely conference that reached a much larger audience than those in years past. This was the first year the conference was offered for free online, which allowed for over 3,500 people globally to tune in—a marked increase from the 500 attendees planned for the original, in-person event.

Over the course of two days, panelists and speakers discussed a wide range of energy topics, including electric vehicles, energy policy, and the future of utilities. The three keynote speakers were Daniel M. Kammen, a professor of energy and the chair of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley; Rachel Kyte, the dean of the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; and John Deutch, the Institute Professor of Chemistry at MIT.

Many speakers modified their presentations to address Covid-19 and how it relates to energy and the environment. For example, Kammen adjusted his address to cover what those who are working to address the climate emergency can learn from the Covid-19 pandemic. He emphasized the importance of individual actions for both the climate crisis and Covid-19; how global supply chains are vulnerable in a crowded, denuded planet; and how there is no substitute for thorough research and education when tackling these issues.

Wilder credits the team of dedicated, hardworking energy students as the most important contributors to the conference’s success. A couple of notable examples include Joe Connelly, an MBA candidate, and Leah Ellis, a materials science and engineering postdoc, who together managed the Zoom operations during the conference. They ensured that the panels and presentations flowed seamlessly.

Anna Sheppard, another MBA candidate, live-tweeted throughout the conference, managed the YouTube stream, and responded to emails during the event, with assistance from Michael Cheng, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program.

Wilder says MBA candidate Pervez Agwan “was the Swiss Army knife of the group”; he worked on everything from marketing to tickets to operations—and, because he had a final exam on the first day of the conference, Agwan even pulled an all-nighter to ensure that the event and team were in good shape.

“What I loved most about this team was that they were extremely humble and happy to do the dirty work,” Wilder says. “Everyone was content to put their head down and grind to make this event great. They did not desire praise or accolades, and are therefore worthy of both.”

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.


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