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MIT Better World

Left: Doug Spreng; Middle: Arunas Chesonis; Right: Prof. Robert Jaffe.


By Elizabeth Thomson

Douglas Spreng

As a result, he has given generously to the Institute to help support that research, and actively works to convince others to do the same. “MIT is special,” says Spreng (MIT SB ‘65), who recently was named a MITEI affiliate member. He conceived and runs the MITEI On the Road program, which brings MIT faculty involved in energy research to Northern California. “The Institute has tremendous strengths in the physical sciences, such as chemistry, physics, and materials engineering, that are key to solving energy problems. It also has a history of bringing these kinds of disciplines together — merging them — that can create very innovative solutions.” Six years ago, Spreng retired from a successful career in the semiconductor industry. At the time, he said, “I was thinking, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? How do I make a contribution to something important?” Enter MIT President Susan Hockfield, who gave a talk Spreng attended about the then newly established MIT Energy Initiative. “And I thought, that’s something I could get really excited about,” Spreng remembers. Spreng has already seen what can happen when MIT researchers have the means to explore more speculative — but potentially breakthrough — research. For example, his support of Prof. Tonio Buonassisi’s work toward more-efficient solar cells has led to several patents, and his support of Prof. Jacopo Buongiorno’s work on a solar thermal power plant concept has been optioned by a potential licensee.

Arunas Chesonis

In late 2007, Arunas Chesonis attended an MIT symposium that would lead to a lunch with MIT Prof. Daniel Nocera, a dream sketched on a placemat, and, ultimately, a gift from Chesonis to bring forth that dream. Nocera gave a lecture at the symposium explaining our global energy inventory. Says Chesonis (MIT SB ‘84), “His talk included information about how much energy we demand today and what we use to meet this demand, as well as his projections for 2050. What he said left me reeling and wondering what we could do to help ensure a safe future for our children and grandchildren. How could our family make any impact to address this vast, complex, and seemingly insurmountable scenario?” Chesonis invited Nocera to lunch, where he asked him to outline what he would do with $10 million to address our planet’s energy challenges. Nocera’s answer: the Solar Revolution Project at MIT. Its ultimate goal? The replacement of fossil fuels with solar energy as the world’s primary carbon-free energy source. In 2008, the Solar Revolution Project began thanks to the Chesonis Family Foundation’s gift. The experience, Chesonis notes, “has been extremely rewarding. Dan’s original sketch has evolved into an ecosystem of interdisciplinary work and a family of over 100 collaborators. We continue to feel that our family is making a highly leveraged investment by taking a chance on early-stage research, and we cannot wait to watch the seeds we’ve planted bloom.”

Jeffrey Silverman, David Desjardins

One hurdle universities face as they try to improve their own energy efficiency is figuring out how to pay for it. The long-term saving from these kinds of projects can be significant for a large institution — done right, such a plan could save MIT several million dollars on its energy bill each year. But these energy projects require substantial up-front investment, and that can be challenging for schools. MIT is well on its way to meet this challenge, thanks to a $1 million gift from Jeffrey Silverman (MIT SB ‘68). With this money, the Institute has established a fund to support campus energy and efficiency projects that have rapid “paybacks” — or savings that accrue and then can be reinvested into additional projects. Silverman first heard about the investment opportunity from Theresa Stone, MIT’s former executive vice president and treasurer, who also co-chaired the Campus Energy Task Force. The Task Force was established by the MIT Energy Initiative to help MIT “walk the talk” on energy use. “The idea of providing the seed money that was going to create savings and then get reinvested into more savings interested me,” Silverman says. He was also impressed that the fund was designed so that the savings would be rigorously measured, documented, and verified. So in April 2009 he formed the Silverman Evergreen Energy Fund. “Archimedes said: ‘Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the world,’” Silverman says. “We instantly saw the concept of how the Silverman Family Evergreen Energy fund could leverage MIT’s strength in science, engineering, and management into a truly earth-moving concept.” David desJardins (MIT SB ‘83) has since donated an additional $500,000 to the effort.

Derry and Charlene Kabcenell

The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation

MIT is changing the face of energy education. In 2007, Derry and Charlene Kabcenell gave a gift for the creation of curricula in this area that led to a new MIT undergraduate minor. In 2010 gifts from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and an anonymous alumnus moved the minor out of the startup phase. Unlike most energy concentrations available at other universities, the Energy Studies Minor is inherently cross-disciplinary. Administered by the MIT Energy Initiative with oversight from faculty in all five schools, the minor is designed to complement any undergraduate major. Derry (MIT SB ‘75) and Charlene (MIT SB ‘79) Kabcenell have been awarding grants in environmental and energy education for years. “Energy issues are the defining issues of our times,” says Derry. “MIT has a history of working on problems in the world that really matter and certainly has the capabilities to be a leader in solving this one.” The five-year grant from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation is being used to create eight new energy-related classes, identify and renovate teaching space, and share the new approaches of the energy minor with others, including students and teachers worldwide. “By applying a multidisciplinary approach and emphasizing project-based learning, the Energy Studies Minor at MIT provides students with the means to address complex problems and propose 21st century solutions,” says Lauren Dachs, president of the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

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