The MIT Energy Club: Building the energy community on campus and beyond

Victoria Ekstrom MITEI

More than a thousand students strong and growing, the MIT Energy Club is the largest student group on MIT’s campus—and one of the largest clubs of its kind in the nation, with more than four thousand general members worldwide. The club has succeeded, co-president Sam Telleen says, because of its dedicated members and strong relationships with organizations on and off campus—such as the MIT Energy Initiative.

Once hooked, students often find the club to be like a second job, says Lara Pierpoint, co-president in the 2008–2009 academic year. Pierpoint says her PhD advisor, founding director of the Energy Initiative Ernest Moniz, used to joke that “I had two full-time jobs. The more important one was Energy Club president, and second to that was my work for him.”

As the Energy Club approaches its 10th anniversary next year, club members— past and present—reflect on the club’s roots, influence, and future.

The beginnings

The story of the Energy Club’s short but remarkably successful history starts with a teacher’s challenge and a broke, eager student.

David Danielson, a PhD student studying solar energy, took a class on sustainable energy in the spring of 2004. The professors teaching the class were in the midst of publishing a book, and they challenged their students to catch their mistakes, promising a dollar for each mistake found. Danielson pulled two all-nighters and made about $300.

“During the course, I noticed there was a two-way dialogue happening between the students and the professors, but we [the students] weren’t talking to each other,” Danielson says. So at the end of the semester, Danielson emailed the class asking if they wanted to put their book challenge money toward a pizza and beer fund, then meet at the nearby Muddy Charles Pub to talk about energy. The Energy Club was born.

By the end of summer 2004, the club had grown to about 30 members, and a few “Sloanies”—as the business students from MIT’s Sloan School of Management are affectionately called—started showing up.

“We were a bit dubious about their motives because we were technologists and we weren’t sure about those business folks,” Danielson recalls. “But then as they contributed to the discussions, we came to learn they had phenomenal expertise and talents that were totally different from ours and from which we could learn.”

One lesson was that the business students “liked to go big,” Danielson says. Nolan Browne was one such “Sloanie.” At Sloan, Browne felt isolated, but in exploring MIT’s labs and talking with professors he discovered he wasn’t alone. The people he talked with didn’t seem to know each other. “They felt in a bubble, like I did,” Browne says.

Danielson and Browne had succeeded in bringing together a small group of grad students, but Browne recalls thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a venue where MIT as a community can come together and learn from each other?” So at one of the meetings, Browne proposed holding a conference.

“My limited experience with leadership at that time was that people can get really excited about an idea, but then when you ask, ‘OK, who’s willing to commit to help us execute the idea,’ all the hands would go down,” Danielson says. This time, the opposite happened. Everyone’s hands stayed up.

All these years later, Browne described the first Energy Conference, in spring 2005, as “incredibly stressful” but “incredibly fun.”

“What made the Energy Conference great was the quality of the ideas brought to the table, the commitment of the team, and the multidisciplinary reach,” Browne says. “The conference definitely got the attention of the energy community in the US.”

The eighth annual MIT Energy Conference—from Idea to Impact: Collaborating to Meet Global Energy Challenges— was held on March 1–2, 2013, and featured panel discussions by leaders from energy industries and academia as well as keynote addresses by former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and by David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, the nation’s leading independent power generator. Here, Richardson (third from left) and MIT President L. Rafael Reif (far right) pose with student organizers of the conference, including managing director Daniel Connell (second from left).

The club today

Since the first informal gatherings at the Muddy Charles, the club’s membership has skyrocketed. In addition to 1,200 student members, 3,300 individuals from the national energy community receive club emails, bringing total membership to 4,500. The club has also expanded its events to include a Clean Energy Prize, Energy Night, and a Finance Forum.

While the club grows bigger and stronger each year, it remains true to its mission of “building the MIT energy community through fact-based energy analysis.”

Pierpoint says the club could never successfully build an energy community on campus if it strayed into advocacy. But there was one foray into advocacy. When the MIT administration wanted to close down the Muddy Charles Pub, Pierpoint and others sprang into action to save their beloved clubhouse—and it worked.

Otherwise, “We were never going to be an advocacy organization,” Pierpoint says. “The purpose of the club was always to understand energy across the board…and make sure everyone felt welcome.”

Telleen notes there aren’t many organizations that unite people across campus to quite the same extent. “This is one of the few I’ve seen that brings so many disciplines in,” he says. “It’s a great representation of the energy sector in general.”

Not only does the Energy Club reflect the energy sector, it also exhibits the values of MIT, says Addison Stark, a president of the club during the 2010–2011 academic year. He describes how MIT’s central group of buildings were designed to blend together: “There’s no separation of buildings, so the hope was that people from the chemistry department would be walking along and find their way to civil engineering, and then accidentally run into somebody whom they would never meet if they were in separate tall, old ivy towers.”

The club is the same way, Stark says. “It allows you to learn something new from somebody who you wouldn’t otherwise interact with. It’s purposely designed to allow members to brush shoulders.”

From this “brushing shoulders,” friendships develop and members meet “the people who are going to be part of your life, hopefully, 10 or 20 years from now,” Telleen says.

Beyond campus

Ask members of the Energy Club why they devote so much time to the club and most will cite the relationships they’ve formed—both personal and professional.

“I came in really wanting to make an impact and wanting to push the thinking in energy,” current co-president Richard Zhang says. “Then I got involved and became part of the organization and developed friendships. That’s a pretty strong motivator for continuing to be active.”

After leaving MIT, those relationships continue, as members working in startups, corporations, or government find themselves popping up in each other’s lives. And they’re always happy to help a fellow club member.

Browne says being part of the club can help lead to valuable alumni-student interactions and job offers. Daniel Enderton, a president in the 2007–2008 academic year, can attest to that. “My work through the club led directly to the job I had afterwards [at the MIT Energy Initiative] and the job I have today [vice president of business development at C12 Energy].”

Beyond the lessons learned and connections made by members, the Energy Club has served as a model for similar clubs throughout the world. An umbrella organization, also modeled after the club, ties them all together: the Collegiate Energy Association.

When giving advice to others hoping to start their own energy club, Telleen tells them it’s really about “understanding your community and ecosystem on campus”—advice the club continues to model by example.

Those who shared their views for this story include: Nolan Browne MBA ’06, managing director and co-founder of the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems; David Danielson PhD ’07 (materials science), assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, US Department of Energy; Daniel Enderton PhD ’08 (climate physics and chemistry), vice president of business development, C12 Energy; Lara Pierpoint PhD ’11 (engineering systems), AAAS Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow, US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; Addison Stark PhD ’14 (expected—mechanical engineering); Samuel Telleen MBA ’13; Richard Zhang PhD ’15 (expected—electrical engineering).

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.


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