Stephen R. Connors SM ’89, director of the MIT Analysis Group for Regional Energy Alternatives (AGREA) and a leading alternative-energy researcher who helped bring solar and wind power into the mainstream, died peacefully at home on Nov. 13 after a four-year battle with cancer. He was 58.
“Steve was a wonderful colleague,” reflects Robert Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). “His research on renewable energy balanced technology, systems, and human needs carefully. This was particularly well illustrated by his work on Green Islands as part of the MIT-Portugal program. He was a terrifically optimistic and positive collaborator, and one of the most resilient people I have ever had the pleasure to know. He will be sorely missed in our community.”
Connors spent more than 26 years working at MIT as a researcher, mentor, and instructor. He led alternative energy projects around the world at a time when many people were still skeptical about their viability. He thus helped usher in the current era where solar and wind installations can be seen dotting landscapes around the world, serving as mainstream energy solutions in a number of countries.
“His love was regional energy planning with a special emphasis on integrating renewable energy sources and conservation into energy grids,” says David Marks, the Goulder Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering Systems, emeritus, and professor emeritus of the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. “He worked on a variety of projects in Portugal; Norway; Mexico City; Shandong, China; Switzerland; Argentina; the United Kingdom; and even New England looking at a broad array of scenarios around new generation technologies.”
Connors was a prominent figure at the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, where he served as director of the Alliance for Global Sustainability Energy Flagship program and then director of AGREA. In both roles, he tackled a variety of energy challenges across the globe. He believed that there is no single silver-bullet solution for a sustainable energy future and that instead we need to optimize a portfolio of solutions and within each technology to move from “best practice” to “next practice.”
Additionally, as a distinguished researcher and mentor in a variety of MITEI programs, Connors led a cross-Atlantic partnership between MIT and major technological universities in Portugal that was designed to integrate renewable resources like wind, solar, and tidal into energy grids. This joint research included a major focus on strengthening graduate energy and technology programs at Portugal’s leading technology institutes. Connors’ work in Portugal was a powerful demonstration of his ability to marry research with real-world practice to change the way energy is supplied and used in the world.
In the Azores, Connors led the Green Islands Program, which designed to use this region as a testing ground for renewable integration and as a platform for other islands that are dependent on imported fossil fuels. Recently, Portugal was listed as one of the first countries to run four days straight on only renewable energy (wind, solar, and hydro generated electricity), producing zero emissions. As of 2015, renewables provide 48 percent of Portugal’s electricity.
“Steve Connors represented the best of a research and a student-advising colleague that any of us could have had,” recalls Richard Tabors, director of the Utility of the Future study and visiting scholar at MITEI. “From the first days of the AGREA project through multiple international renewable efforts he was always the ‘go to’ person — for facts, for support, for the next good idea, and for a smile and a positive word. The MIT energy community has lost a terrific colleague.”
Connors was a frequent and popular speaker on all energy issues at many global forums. In 2014, he shared his views on how to build a bridge to a more sustainable energy future in a well-attended TEDx talk. He met his wife when he accepted her invitation to speak at a local Cambridge community potluck and arrived with a PowerPoint on wind energy and a homemade broccoli salad.
In early work with the Peace Corps in Benin, Connors lived for two years in a hut with no running water or electricity and was charged with building wood-conserving cooking stoves to save forests. The experience taught him the importance of adapting technology to a specific geography. He was a tireless advocate for a more sustainable future, and these passions led him to co-found AltWheels, which has become one of the larger alternative transportation festivals in New England for fleets, and to co-chair the conservation committee for the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Connors had a deep love of nature, hiking, and exploration. His travels and work took him to various countries, among them Switzerland, France, England, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, China, India, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Benin, Togo, Niger, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia.
Born in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1958, Connors attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he studied physical anthropology and in 1980 received a BA magna cum laude with concentrations in economic development, technology and change, and applied and biological anthropology. After serving in the Peace Corps, he returned to UMass Amherst, where in 1986 he received a BS cum laude in mechanical engineering with a concentration in energy systems, solar, wind, hydrogen, water, thermodynamics, and fluid mechanics. He also earned a master’s in technology and policy at MIT in 1989 with concentrations in electric power systems planning, energy and the environment, and the use of technical information in complex decision-making processes.
Connors is survived by his wife, Alison Sander; his mother, Margaret Connors; his two sisters, Jennifer Connors and Martha Connors; his brother, Mike Connors; and four nieces.
Services will be held at Newbury Court in Concord, Massachusetts, in December and at the MIT Chapel in spring 2017. Details will be shared on Connors’ website: stephenrconnors.com.