11.165J | Fall 2021 | Undergraduate, Graduate
Urban Energy Systems and Policy


Course Meeting Times

2 sessions / week, 1.5 hrs / session



Course Description

This class is about figuring out together what cities and users can do to reduce their energy use and carbon emissions. Many other classes at MIT focus on policies, technologies, and systems, often at the national or international level, but this course focuses on the scale of cities and users for the following reasons:

  • Cities are centers of economic activity, population, and energy and material consumption.
  • Cities, not nations, are making the most ambitious commitments towards climate goals.
  • This scale reveals inequality, racism, and environmental justice issues in the energy system.
  • The relationship of users to the energy system has been static for nearly a century.
  • New information and data technologies are rapidly changing the built environment.
  • Developing countries could leapfrog existing technologies, and many developed countries need to replace existing systems. 

This course is designed for any students interested in learning how to intervene in the energy use of cities using policy, technology, economics, and urban planning. I welcome students with many different backgrounds because it enriches our discussions, but some of the following rationales for this course may also appeal to you:

  • For planners, there are many jobs in this area that will shape how we use energy in the future. This class will integrate fundamental technical understanding with your policy skills so you can tackle the inevitable energy and climate issues that will affect all communities in the future.
  • For engineers, 54% of all people now live in cities that generate 70% of world carbon emissions and 80% of world GDP; by 2050, 66% of the world’s population is expected to be urban. The focus of this class on urban energy use, efficiency, jurisdiction, institutions, and governance complements many other more technical classes at MIT.
  • For climate change: given the uncertain prospects of national and international efforts, efforts in cities may be the fastest and most pragmatic solution.

Learning objectives 

  • Learn about the role and potential of cities and users to shape the energy system
  • Develop understanding of energy systems, infrastructure, and technology in cities
  • Figure out how to achieve an equitable energy transition
  • Develop ability to do simple back-of-the-envelope calculations
  • Identify key points or issues for future management, intervention, or revolution
  • Work together with a diverse group of people and disciplines
  • Develop a highly-detailed understanding for a group of cities together as a class

Structure of the Course

This class is divided into two halves. In the first segment you are learning which basic calculations to perform in order to analyze one or two cities (more on that later), and we will learn about key technical aspects of energy systems in all cities. In the second segment we will examine the policies and institutions governing urban energy systems, with a particular focus on regulation and markets of the electricity sector in the US. Putting the two halves together will help you decide where and how to intervene in urban energy systems.


In the beginning of class, we will build a composite picture of our class, using our personal experiences and visions for the future to energy systems that you are familiar with. Please calculate the current carbon emissions for yourself and/or an average resident for where (a) you lived before MIT and (b) where and how you think you will live in 2050, using the CoolClimate calculator. In the first half of the semester, before each class, doing the reading and a basic calculation exercise will help build up your understanding of what numbers matter, as well as your background knowledge of a particular city. We will reinforce the knowledge with an exam, but if you do the calculation/homework each week, I expect that the exam should be fairly straightforward. 

In the second half of the semester, before each class, researching, writing up a few notes, submitting questions, and getting feedback will help you build up the base of knowledge and material that you need to write your paper. We will have group discussions in the last three classes to share knowledge from our papers. This is also a good chance to put finishing touches on your final paper. Writing a good paper is much easier if you plan ahead, get feedback or help from your classmates, the MIT Writing and Communication Center, and myself, and have time to revise.

The final paper assignment will synthesize what you lean over the semester by considering the prospects for a technological or policy innovation in a city of your choosing (I recommend your home or future city). Undergraduates will be expected to write a short paper of 5 pages minimum. Graduate students will write a paper of 10 pages minimum, with the additional task of analyzing their chosen city in terms of its expected future demographic changes. See the paper writing guidelines below.


There are two books for the class. The first is required and the second is optional: 

  • Required (free): MacKay, David J.C., 2009. Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air, 1st ed.. UIT Cambridge Ltd. ISBN: 9780954452933. Available in paperback from your local or global bookseller for $27–50, and/or can be downloaded legally as a PDF or read in webpage format at http://withouthotair.com/.
  • Optional: Hawken, Paul, ed. 2017. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Penguin. ISBN: 9780143130444.

Other papers assigned for each class are listed on the Readings page.

I will start most classroom days with a brief discussion about current events related to our reading, and this news service provides terrific updates that will keep you updated on energy, climate, as well as related policies and legislation. You can also sign up in advance for two news services:

Other excellent climate newsletters are put out by the New York Times (Climate Forward), the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Time, etc. It is all too much to read every day, but a valuable way to see what energy and climate people are talking about.

Schedule and Topics   

Session 1: Introduction: Welcome!

Session 2: Introduction: Cities and Decarbonization; problem set 1 due

Session 3: Introduction: Equitable, Just Transition; problem set 2 due

Session 4: End Uses: Personal Transport; problem set 3 due

Session 5: End Uses: Transport Systems

Session 6: End Uses: Transportation Impact; problem set 4 due

Session 7: End Uses: Building Energy Use; problem set 5 due

Session 8: End Uses:  Buildings Policies; problem set 6 due

Session 9: End Uses: Energy Efficiency; problem set 7 due

Session 10: End Uses: Industry, Making Stuff; problem set 8 due

Session 11: Sources and Systems: Fossil, CDR, and Nuclear; problem set 9 due

Session 12: Sources and Systems: 12 Solar, Wind; problem set 10 due

Session 13: Sources and Systems: More Renewables; problem set 11 due

Session 14: Sources and Systems: Distributed Resources; problem set 12 due

Session 15: Sources and Systems: Food and Carbon Sinks; problem set 13 due

Session 16: Midterm exam

Session 17: Policy and Institutions: “The Grid” System; reading questions due

Session 18: Policy and Institutions: “The Grid” Continued; reading questions due

Session 19: Policy and Institutions: Regulation; reading questions due

Session 20: Policy and Institutions: Ownership; reading questions due

Session 21: Policy and Institutions: Scales and Choices; reading questions due

Session 22: Policy and Institutions: Possible Futures; reading questions due

Session 23: Wrapping Up: Group discussion 1

Session 24: Wrapping Up: Group discussion 2

Session 25: Wrapping Up: Group discussion 3

Session 26: Wrapping Up: Final papers due



  • Do reading and submit your problem sets or questions the evening before class.
  • Ask questions and contribute insights for everyone’s learning.
  • Focus on class discussion and lecture.
  • Use technology effectively and only as needed.
  • Please make an effort to be on time for class, and please let me know in advance if you will miss class. Missing more than two classes will affect your participation/discussion grade.

Grade Breakdown

  • Before class prep: problem sets and reading questions 25%
  • Class presence/discussion/participation 10%
  • Exam 25%
  • Paper proposal 5%
  • Short presentation, group discussion 5%
  • Final paper 30%

Assignments and Due Dates

Problem sets and reading questions are due by midnight (11:59 pm) the day before class. Earlier is better for your sleep, though! For more details on the expectations for the assignments, see the Assignments page.


Each person is allowed to miss up to 3 problem sets and reading questions, which are assessed automatically. If you miss the midnight deadline, I can’t give any extensions for the final paper because grades are due three days after the end of class, so plan ahead for this. In cases of extreme physical or emotional circumstances, any further extensions should be requested from the Office of Graduate Education; if they decide that an extension is warranted, they will then send me a generic note, which preserves your privacy.

Academic Integrity

Plagiarism, unauthorized collaboration, cheating, and facilitating academic dishonesty are academic crimes. It is your responsibility as students and scholars to understand the definition of any such activities, and to avoid and discourage them. Engaging in these activities either knowingly or unknowingly may result in severe academic sanctions, and you are therefore expected to familiarize yourself with MIT’s academic integrity policies.

Course Info
Learning Resource Types
assignment Written Assignments