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Total Energy to Total Disaster

MATEP’s 12-year road to completion left University, neighbors frustrated

Crimson FILE Photo

The diesel engines which fuel MATEP's power-generating capability caused resident concern over pollution from their exhaust.

At the beginning of 1978, Harvard found itself locked in a battle with area residents and government officials over its most expensive and ambitious construction project ever—the Medical Area Total Energy Plant (MATEP).That year, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) turned down the University’s request to build the plant.

The denial was just one in a series of obstacles the project would overcome on its way to being completed in 1986. And with a final price tag of $350 million and hours lost in community squabbles, MATEP turned out to cost more than the University bargained for—in both dollars and goodwill.

Harvard officials first proposed building the energy plant—which provides chilled water, steam and electricity to the medical area—in 1974.

As Harvard’s schools and teaching hospitals in Boston grew, it became apparent that the antiquated Harvard Powerhouse, a plant built in 1906, would not continue to provide enough power for the area at feasible cost levels.

Harvard planned MATEP in order to address these concerns, with an eye towards efficiency and growth. With the mid-1970s oil-crisis and pressing demands to secure lasting sources of energy at low costs, ‘total-energy’ was the goal.

Situated on the corner of Brookline Avenue and Francis Street in Boston, MATEP is one of the largest power plants in North America. It includes six 9,000-horsepower diesel engines, two turbine generators, three boilers, seven chillers and seven cooling towers. The plant can produce enough energy to light suburban Wellesley—population 28,000.

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The total energy component of MATEP came from its cutting-edge “co-generation” technology, whereby the exhaust from the production of each one of the plant’s three products—chilled water, steam and electricity—would fuel the generation of another product.

Harvard planned to spend $40 million, a cost that would be quickly covered by the $2 million a year that the University was projected to save by producing power in-house at a central location.

But with a final price tag of $350 million and hours lost in battles with local residents and government environmental agencies, ‘total-energy’ soon morphed into total disaster.

“It seemed like a colossal blunder at the time,” says Sherwood E. Bain ’45, who has analyzed and written about Harvard’s finances for years as a Boston investment banker.

Generating Ire

By 1976, Harvard had set out to construct MATEP, ordering the six diesel engines necessary to run the plant, storing them in a South Boston warehouse and launching construction on the 315 ft. smokestack.

MATEP’s planners had not anticipated that its Boston and Brookline neighbors would voice such vehement opposition to the project. The residents were chiefly concerned that the project was environmentally harmful.

NOMATEP, a group created to oppose the project that claimed to represent over 100 community organizations, argued that the nitrous oxides emitted by diesel engines would eventually cause lung cancer in those who lived in the area.

By 1977 Harvard entered hearings with the state DEQE, and in 1978 the University received a ruling that the plant would be too environmentally harmful to be built. In the summer of 1980, the case came up for reconsideration, with protesters remaining adamantly opposed to the plant’s construction.

When the DEQE called a meeting at the State House with Harvard’s lawyers to schedule a hearing so the case could be reconsidered, about 15 Brookline and Boston residents barricaded the meeting room doors in protest. After capitol police were summoned and the meeting cancelled, it was held by telephone with Harvard threatening to take the governmental agency to court if its permit was denied.

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