November 1, 2016

Energy Career Trek 2016 student blog: Visiting Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI)

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

During Fall Break of the 2016-17 school year, the Nicholas School Energy Club sent fifteen graduate students from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Pratt School of Engineering and Fuqua School of Business to Denver, Colorado, as part of the club's annual Career Trek. Coordinated by Master of Environmental Management (MEM) students Leah Louis-Prescott and Eleanor Johnstone, the event was supported in part by the Duke University Energy Initiative.

Below is a student's account of one of the eight companies and agencies included on the trek. Read the others.

Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) 

By Sudeep Narsipur
Master of Engineering Management Candidate

The Career Trek team visited RMI's center in Boulder, Colorado for an introduction to RMI's current work across buildings, transportation, urban development research and other key segments of the energy sector. RMI is dedicated to research, publication, consulting and lecturing in the general field of sustainability, with a special focus on profitable innovations for energy and resource efficiency.

The visit began with a presentation of RMI's Innovation Center – a building that has been built, designed and operated with the main goal of demonstrating net zero energy systems' effectiveness in a commercial building  (producing enough energy on-site through renewables as the building requires in a year), along with similar goals in water usage, with a focus on aesthetical indoor environment, landscape, beauty and longevity. Only 200 buildings in the world are certified Net Zero Energy as of 2015, highlighting the achievement of the RMI team.

The results documented from the first eight months of occupancy of the Innovation Center are staggering:‚Äã 1) energy use intensity is trending down to 13.2 kBTU/sq.ft./year; and 2) the total onsite energy generation thus far has been 3 times that of the energy use from these buildings. Also, this building has the distinction of being unusually airtight, with only 0.36 changes/hour in airflow—97% more airtight than the conventional commercial building. RMI hopes the Innovation Center can serve as a "living lab" for sharing how the building was contracted, designed, constructed, commissioned and operated (and what RMI learned in the process) so that it can be replicated.

The presentation was followed by a round-table with associates and managers from each of RMI's core practices. This group dons many hats, primarily: 1) a think tank that associates with various thought groups to come out with research ideas in the above mentioned sectors;  and 2) a consultant with various leading industry players to serve as an industry-wide convener and a change agent. Teams also partner with the governments of countries such as the U.S., China, Africa, India and the Caribbean islands. The team hopes to be able to utilize the lessons learned from its work in the U.S. to carry out similar work across these places, thus meeting its goals of sustainable development and clean energy utilization across the globe.

RMI's work is not just academic and research-oriented, but has high value for the business and operational arenas of global organizations across various sectors. The team shared that only 30% of their yearly $30 million budget comes from government funding, while the remaining 70% comes from consulting fees—a sign of the growing realization of companies of the significance of RMI's work in the context of their businesses. The RMI visit gave us a strong example of how core engineering research can be applied to practical problems to arrive at solutions pertinent to the end users from not only an environmental perspective, but also a business one.

Read about the next stop on the Career Trek: Clean Energy Collective. 

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