Walking the Talk at MIT: Karen A. Nilsson

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Deborah Halber, MIT Energy Initiative Correspondent

Karen A. Nilsson Karen A. Nilsson, senior associate dean for Residential Life, says “With any project we do, we ask ourselves, ‘Will this save us energy?’ Photo: Jennifer DiMase

When Karen A. Nilsson came to MIT more than 20 years ago, ways and means to recycle were not readily available.

Today, all main campus residence halls have brightly colored bins for white paper, newspaper, cardboard, plastic, cans and bottles. Thanks in part to Nilsson, senior associate dean for Residential Life, students can even recycle old mattresses and computers, and each purchasing decision--from cleaning supplies to built-in cabinets--is weighed in terms of its long-term environmental sustainability.

The MIT Energy Initiative's Campus Energy Task Force develops integrated strategies and programs that enable MIT to “walk the talk” on energy and the environment. The task force engages staff, faculty, students and leading MIT energy experts to exploit the newest technologies and approaches and build on the expertise of MIT’s administrative and operational resources. As a key member of the task force, Nilsson works with the group to engage the entire campus community in identifying, developing and implementing sustainable energy practices.

Nilsson, whose portfolio includes Housing; Dining; Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups (FSILGs); and Residential Life Programs, said, “With any project we do, we ask ourselves, ‘Will this save us energy?’”

The answers have led to--among other initiatives--installing solar panels on the new gold LEED-registered Ashdown House (NW35) in the near future to provide hot water for showers and cooking, buying more water-efficient washing machines, transforming used cooking oil into biodiesel for MIT vehicles, new windows in Tang Hall and buying locally grown food to reduce the Institute’s carbon impact.

“Recycling, plus purchasing sustainable product lines, not only makes a difference but also has proved to be a better buy economically,” she said. “I work with students and many others on ways to make the areas of Residential Life a good citizen in terms of energy savings and sustainable products.”

Most recently, Nilsson worked with students to increase awareness of electricity use in the dorms. In 2007, a student group launched a dorm-wide competition with a grand prize of $10,000 (supplied by Residential Life and the Housing department) in retrofits for the winning building.

Baseline levels of electricity use per capita were measured for all dorms, then, with dorm coordinators providing saving tips, dorms competed over eight weeks to reduce per capita electricity consumption. 

McCormack Hall, winner of the inaugural competition, used the prize money to change its light bulbs to energy-saving compact fluorescents and install sensors that switch off lights when no movement is detected over time. Baker House won the 2008 competition with an average savings of 20 kilowatt-hours per person. A 2009 rematch is in the works. Nilsson said projects like these are not only “exciting, but also give me a real sense of satisfaction.”

Nilsson would like to see recycling bins become ubiquitous for the FSILGs across the river in Boston and down Mass. Ave. toward Central Square. “We’re partnering with the Department of Facilities to brainstorm on ways to bring them those services at a reasonable rate,” she said. “Luckily, the decreased costs for trash hauling often equal or offset the added expense of recycling.”

For Nilsson, increased awareness of sustainability at work has led to changes at home. In her renovated and winterized former summer cottage in Hull, which bears the brunt of windy, freezing New England winters, Nilsson has installed triple-pane windows and a more efficient furnace and hot water heater. She recycles so much that she only needs biweekly trash pickups.

Even though Nilsson is gung-ho on sustainability, she gives students the most credit for initiating campus improvements. “What’s so wonderful about MIT students is that they come up with fantastic ideas that are not only good for the planet, but also lower costs,” she said.