It's a Monday night at MIT, just a few weeks before final exams. Grad students Tegin Teich and Todd Schenk could be studying or relaxing. Instead, they're hustling through a maze of basement hallways in search of notorious energy hogs: vending machines. The average soda dispenser consumes 3,500 kilowatts a year—more than four times the juice for a home refrigerator. To conserve electricity, MIT's administrators have been installing devices called Vending Misers, which use motion detectors to turn off a machine's lights and cooling systems when people aren't nearby, cutting energy consumption by 50 percent. Trouble is, MIT isn't exactly sure where all its vending machines are located, or which ones already have the devices installed. So tonight it's enlisted the MIT Energy Club to help figure it out.
It's just one event on the club's very busy calendar. With 750 students, the four-year-old group is MIT's fastest-growing extracurricular organization. Many of its members aim to build careers in "green tech" fields, and club events offer a chance to network and learn about the challenges and opportunities in emerging energy fields. In recent weeks, members had lunch with the U.S. Energy secretary and toured a nuclear reactor. Others discussed national biofuel policy as part of a wonky biweekly discussion held over beer and pizza at a local pub. Club members say the group exposes them to people and ideas from other disciplines; as a result, M.B.A. types become better versed in the science of climate change, while science geeks get comfortable reading business plans and understanding concepts like return on investment. In contrast to left-leaning campus environmentalists of a decade ago, who might have joined Greenpeace after school, "most of our [members] really believe in the power of the tools of capitalism to solve the problem," says founder Dave Danielson, who earned a Ph.D. in material sciences last fall.
Down in the basement at MIT, the club is getting some early results. Teich and Schenk have found a group of eight vending machines. Four of them are hooked up to Vending Misers, but only one is functioning. "This is like wiring a stereo," Schenk says, untangling wires to make the devices work. Later, Teich climbs on top of a different machine to pick off layers of masking tape left over from a paint job that had rendered the gizmo's sensor inoperable. "We probably just saved [MIT] $100" in reduced electricity bills, Teich says. It won't save the planet—but every bit counts.