Students Making McGill More Sustainable

The McGill Energy Project is an initiative that aims to promote sustainable, student-led projects. Lately, they have been making waves by involving themselves with CodeJam, an energy analysis of the RVC residence and other events on campus. The ledger sat down with MEP founder Marc-Etienne Brunet to talk about sustainability, McGill, and getting students involved in projects that can make a difference.

The Plumber’s Ledger: What is your background? How did you become interested in green energy projects?

Marc-Etienne Brunet: Academically speaking, my background jumps around quite a bit. Throughout my 4 and a half years at McGill, I was at one point registered to do a Major or Minor in Mining Engineering, Materials Engineering, Earth Systems Science, Physics and Math. I eventually graduated with B.Eng in Electrical Engineering in December 2012. From a less academic point of view, my background involves a lot of rock climbing and, like many engineers, building stuff in my apartment and before that my parents’ garage.

I think what got me going on “green energy”, was really the environmental and climate science. However, what keeps me going are the innovative, values-driven, people I keep meeting in the space.

PL: Who and what is the McGill Energy Project?

MEB: The McGill Energy Project is a student led group, which collaborates with professors and administrative staff to work on campus energy projects. The idea is to drive sustainability through student-led projects (ideally ones you have to do for-credit anyway), where the outcomes are both fresh thought output for the campus, and students gaining new skills in energy management.
There are about 10 core student organizers, 30 or so students who have done or are doing projects, and a half dozen key staff and faculty members playing a supervision or support role. I should note that only about half the students involved study engineering. We don’t see energy as something that should be limited to engineering.

PL: How much potential does the McGill campus have for energy-efficiency improvement?

MEB: McGill spends in the range of $17 million dollars on energy every year, and has one of the most energy intensive campuses in Quebec. However, we face particular challenges, given that institution is so research intensive and operates out of historic buildings. There is a department of highly competent (and friendly) staff dedicated to managing this energy consumption in the traditional sense (montoring, lighting retrofits, HVAC upgrades… etc). But there is only so much the University can invest each year, and many efficiency projects remain.

PL: How can students get involved, and is it easy to find funding for energy-related projects at McGill?

MEB: Students can get involved in two ways. They can either get in touch with us the semester before they start a design project (or independent study), and ask us to help them find a campus-energy related topic. We can then also help them make some key connections on campus, give them a bunch of information resources, and generally offer them guidance through the course of their project.

Alternatively students can be in touch about the volunteer organizer positions, or just attend one of our events.

Funding is never “easy” to come by. However, the Sustainable Projects Fund (SPF) makes $800k a year available to the community for sustainability projects. Students wanting to have an impact on campus should definitely apply with their project ideas.

PL: Let’s say you had an unlimited budget, and a 5-year mandate to maximize campus efficiency, what issues would you tackle first?

MEB: I think about McGill’s relationship with energy in four layers (holding out four fingers):

1.Energy use on campus: the infrastructure and operating decisions that determine the quantity and type of energy the university consumes.
2.The actions of McGill’s greater community, which include decisions made at home, as well as around transportation.
3.McGill’s role as a leading institution: the influence it has in the city or the province.
4.The University’s research: pushing the very limits of what is technologically feasible and informing the best possible policy.

The $17 million of energy consumed by campus falls into the first category, but ultimately I think categories 2 to 4 are far more influential. So simply trying to increase “energy-efficiency” wouldn’t be my approach. Instead, I would look to run projects that have an impact across many of these layers. I would intentionally move away from projects that just improve the efficiency of equipment and operating protocols, and towards projects that both restructure the physical energy systems on campus, and work to change the culture of energy use. UBC seems to have some really cool examples of this, where they’ve turned their campus into a “living laboratory”, and are doing things like concurrently researching biofuels and using them to power their campus.

I am a strong believer that we will need to make disruptive changes to the way we relate to the environment and each other.

PL: What is your affiliation to groups such as the McGill Waste Project? Is collaboration with other campus groups an integral part of the work you do on campus?

MEB: The McGill Energy Project (MEP) was established on a model first used by the McGill Food Systems Project (MFSP), and is now being used by the McGill Waste Project (MWP). Basically, we all work collaboratively with staff and use student research to drive sustainability, but we don’t fit into a box very well. Over the summer we began sharing resources and began referring to ourselves as M(x)P when working on joint ventures. (Laughs) That’s right we’re clever like that.

I’d say yes, definitely in as far as our collaboration with staff groups is concerned. However, we could certainly get better at collaborating with other student groups.

PL: I see that you’re group is involved with Code Jam this year, why is that? Are efficient algorithms the most effective way, in terms of time invested per kWh saved, to address energy efficiency issues?

MEB: We began speaking with the organizers of Code Jam a while back. There was a growing interest from many students to move away from the recurring theme of financial trading. We saw it as an opportunity to get a bunch of students thinking about energy and sustainability (I mean trading algorithms might be intellectually stimulating for some, but they’re certainly not helping with the imminent environmental and social crises). We also thought it would be cool to have the 120 brains in the room trying to produce something applicable on campus. So this year the MEP helped bring in a few sponsors (including the SPF) and ultimately designed the challenge question around campus energy use.
No, probably not, but they’ll play an important part in smart grids, and serve as a great entry point into sustainability for the technocrats of the world.

PL: What advice would you give to students looking to get involved with sustainability projects on campus?

MEB: Well normally when I ask a room of people how they think they can get involved in sustainability I get a list of a dozen consumption or disposal choices thrown back at me (transportation, food, recycling, compost… etc.) And fine, fair enough, I’ll say with confidence that just about everyone on campus could become a more responsible consumer, and it’s important to try. But what I really want to try and hammer home, is that what you produce (i.e. what you use that big beautiful brain to create) has a much greater effect than those dozen consumption decisions. Ultimately, the bulk of your impact is determined by the projects and work you contribute to.

The main advice I would give when getting involved in sustainability on campus, don’t think about it as a pet project. Make the experience a priority, and use the knowledge you gain, and people you meet, to guide your career choices. That doesn’t necessarily mean lining yourself up to work in renewable energy or climate policy. But it does mean learning how to actively reflect on, criticize, adjust your role in the world.

PL: What is your energy-related pet-peeve, as an engineering student, is there one practice in particular by the administration or the students that doesn’t make energetic sense to you?

MEB: Hmm, I’ve been struggling a lot with incrementalism these days. At this point in the game we either need to go big or go home. I choose the former.

Marc-Etienne Brunet is the founder of the McGill Energy Project and a former Engineering Student. To learn more about MEP visit

Christophe Rainville


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