Back when the MIT Energy Club was just a group of friends meeting for beers at the Muddy Charles Pub, some of its members used to play a game: try and get Dave Danielson to talk about something other than energy.

It was a futile exercise, and that was the point. Try as they might, even over beers it was nearly impossible to get the club’s founder off topic.

Made up of not only MIT students but members of the local energy community, the MIT Energy Club’s membership has swelled to 3300 since its founding in 2004, and it now hosts more than 100 events a year. Its weekly newsletter is the premier aggregator of Boston’s energy activities, and this Friday and Saturday the Club will hold its seventh annual student run MIT Energy Conference, by now an staple in the industry, sold out at 1000 attendees and featuring keynotes by the President of Shell and a VP from GE.

But if the Club’s scope makes it unrecognizable organizationally compared to its humble origins, seven-and-a-half years after Danielson convened the first meeting at the Muddy, its priorities, its ethos, and even much of its community remain unchanged.

The Founding

In early 2004, Danielson was a material science PhD at MIT in search of peers with whom he could pursue his passion for clean energy, which he’d developed as undergrad at Berkeley. His first exposure to such a group was through a course titled Sustainable Energy led by Professor Jefferson Tester, which would soon be published as a prominent textbook by the same name.

Tester and his colleagues were completing a draft of the text and offered their students one dollar per mistake they could locate, from substantive errors to punctuation to typos. Danielson took the task as a challenge, staying up all night and finding plenty of each.

“By the end of the course I had like 300 bucks,” he told me. At the end of the course, Danielson emailed his classmates and proposed they continue the conversation through a regular discussion group, and that they pool their textbook-error winnings – no one else had bothered to find nearly as many errors – to cover the cost of beer.  Three people attended the first meeting in the summer of 2004, including Danielson. The MIT Energy Club was born.

“If you have a good idea, start small and if it grows it’s a good idea and if it doesn’t then it’s probably not,” said Danielson. This one grew.

Motivated By Passion, But Checking It At the Door

By the fall semester, the Club had more than 20 members, and had turned into a moderated discussion. The group would pick a topic, Danielson would send around reading materials (of which each member would agree to read one) and then they’d meet to discuss.

From the beginning, the group embraced two approaches that remain central to today’s Club. The first was a focus on factual discussion rather than advocacy, driven by Danielson from the start, and still something Club and Conference leadership hold up as their defining feature.

“We really were going to focus on outcomes,” Danielson explained, citing the Club’s founding mission of “building the MIT energy community through fact-based analysis,” and noting that he made clear that opinions not based in fact would not be welcome.

“It’s not a matter of opinion whether an electron flows from A to B. It’s a matter of fact,” said Nol Browne, now Managing Director at the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems. In 2004, Browne was an MBA student exploring the MIT energy landscape, looking for ways to strengthen his technical expertise. Impressed by the depoliticized nature of the discussions, he fell in early with Danielson’s group.

“This was exactly why I had come to MIT,” he told me.

Browne’s inclusion early on speaks to the second feature of the Club’s early days that would inform its subsequent growth: an interdisciplinary focus. Though ‘interdisciplinary’ may sound like an obvious good, it was easier said than done. As multiple current and former club members explained to me, the incentives between MBAs and PhDs are radically different. The former are expected to devote time to networking while the latter are incented to spend as much time on research as possible. Moreover, the two groups don’t always speak the same language, or even occupy the same parts of campus.

“The different vocabulary,  the different incentives and the differenet geography – all of those three things were taken care of by Dave Danielson,” said Sarah Wood, a current Master’s student who has been involved with the Club for several years.

“That was a big moment,” said Danielson, referring to the point at which the Club realized it needed business students’ expertise to fully understand the energy challenge. It would take one such MBA to bring the Club to the next level.

The First MIT Energy Conference

When Browne first pitched him on an energy conference in early 2006, Danielson responded that it sounded like a lot of work.

“Nol was the brainchild behind the whole thing,” Danielson told me. He was hesitant to run a conference, but let Browne pitch the Club’s executive committee. Browne presented for about half an hour, after which time Danielson asked for a show of hands on whether a conference was a good idea. All hands went up. Then Danielson asked for a show of hands for who would volunteer their time to run such a conference, fully expecting that would be the end of it. All hands stayed up.

“Almost everybody who put their hand up that day became really active to help us do it,” said Browne.

Browne took on the role of Managing Director and Danielson assisted as Technical Director. Over just two and a half months and with very little in the way of sponsorship money, they put on a conference – entirely student run, as it remains – that attracted a “couple hundred” people, including investors and entrepreneurs from around Boston.

“One of the proudest moments of my life was the day of the conference,” Browne told me. “We put it together and we just knocked it out of the park.”

But the benefits the Conference brought to the Club went beyond the exposure to the energy community.

“This process formed a community in a way,” Browne said. “We knew how to talk to each other. We had a common language after that.”

Leadership Factory

Browne refers to the conference planning team as a “leadership factory,” and he and Danielson were careful from the beginning to ensure that the Club and Conference would remain successful after they left MIT. Indeed, over the years the leadership of both have gone on to prominent positions in the private sector, government, and academia.

The two students who joined Danielson for the Club’s first meeting, Libby Wayman and Michael Berlinski, have gone on to careers in energy including between the two of them stints at GE, SunPower, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

A list of other companies and organizations where former Club and Conference leadership have worked reads a map of key industry institutions: EnerNOC, A123, Nth Power, General Catalyst, ARPA-E, McKinsey, Harvest Power, Liquid Metal Battery, Fraunhofer, OnChip Power.

Danielson, who went to venture firm General Catalyst and then ARPA-E, the Deparment of Energy’s emerging technology funding arm, is currently awaiting Senate confirmation to become Assistant Secretary of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at DOE.

Together, the Club and Conference leadership forms a pipeline of energy talent unrivaled by any other university. And given the prominence of former leadership, such a role now comes with an extremely valuable alumni network.

“I know I’ve gotten a lot of value personally from the past leadership in terms of buildilng my business, helping me make connections,” said Vanessa Green, Managing Director of last year’s conference and a co-founder of OnChip, which has raised $2.8 million in Series A funding.

But while such a prominent alumni network makes it easier to get conference speakers and sponsors, and creates strong professional connections, it poses a new challenge for the Club, as today’s leadership no longer overlapped with the founding members.

For that reason, the group has started holding an annual retreat for current and past leadership, to ensure that each generation stay in touch with previous ones. But while these retreats are largely social, much like the original discusssions at the Muddy, they are also extremely nerdy.

“I think people would be surprised how much we actually do talk about energy,” said Wood.

Beyond MIT

When asked what the Club should be doing to expand its impact going forward, most everyone I spoke to, both current and former leaders, pointed to the same thing: helping universities across the country and across the world mirror its success.

“I regularly have emails from students at a lot of other universities,” said Caleb Waugh, the Club’s current Co-President. While there are strong energy clubs at other universities like Stanford and Berkeley, none rival MIT’s. Some schools, like Harvard, have separate energy clubs for the business school, the policy school, for undergraduates, etc. Many have none at all. Waugh is focused on helping those schools adopt the MIT model of a central, interdisciplinary club.

That emphasis is in addition to continuing the events, publications, and conferences that have made the Club such a success. And it includes continuing to produce young energy leaders who can bring a passionate but fact-based approach to their careers.

“I think we’ll continue to turn out new OnChips, new ARPA-E’s, which are to some degree products of our community,” said Jamie Fordyce, an MBA student and this year’s Conference Managing Director.

In an era when U.S. energy politics has grown particularly insane, it’s somewhat comforting to think of all the MIT Energy Club alums working in both government and industry, trying to address the myriad of energy challenges we now face. And if energy has been a victim of partisanship in Washington with political scandals like Solyndra, no such effect has been seen at MIT.

“Energy is still a very very hot topic at MIT,” Waugh told me. “It’s only gotten more attention over the last four years.”

This weekend the Club will showcase how far it has come in just over seven years, with impressive keynotes and attendees. But when the Conference is over, Club leadership will continue to convene at “the institution of the Muddy Charles” in Fordyce’s words, for the informal meetings that continue to be a Club staple.

While the official slogan may be “building the MIT energy community through fact-based analysis,” Wood let me in on the unofficial one: “Changing the world, one beer at a time.”

[Image via Wikipedia]