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How universities are stepping up to the climate challenge

Curtin University master plan
Curtin University master plan

SPECIAL REPORTS: Universities are being pushed to take a greater lead on clean energy investment to help offset their rising energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions. However, with emissions reduction becoming an increasing focus of universities’ sustainability strategies, innovative approaches are already creating a buzz across our campuses.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s recent market report Clean energy opportunities for universities estimates Australian universities are currently paying as much as $700 million in energy costs each year and are responsible for annual emissions of more than one million tonnes of CO2-e.

The CEFC examined carbon emissions reporting, university energy and greenhouse gas reduction targets and university sector debt borrowings. It found compelling reasons for universities to increase their uptake of clean energy technologies and to consider the use of tailored debt finance to support these initiatives.

The CEFC’s involvement in the university sector includes:

  • $9.1 million in finance to the University of Melbourne for initiatives including voltage optimisation, freezer upgrades, solar photovoltaics, solar thermal and micro-turbines.
  • The signing of a letter of interest regarding finance for Monash University’s Transformative Energy Initiative, which includes new technologies and smart grids.

On average almost 70 per cent of university electricity use relates to heating, cooling and lighting. Large research facilities are particularly energy intensive. For example, the supercomputer in the National Computational Infrastructure Building at Australian National University guzzles 15 per cent of the university’s energy.

Many universities have installed rooftop or ground-mounted photovoltaic systems. According to the report, the University of Queensland has installed 5.6 megawatts of solar PV – more than 10 times as much as the next top solar university, Melbourne’s Monash.

Microgrids, Green Star & passive houses

Monash was the first Australian university to commit to an energy reduction target and has committed to reducing emissions to 30 per cent below 2010 levels by 2020.

The establishment of a microgrid on its Clayton campus, in partnership with industry and the state government, will integrate a diverse range of energy resources for generation and storage into a single, contained energy network. It’s anticipated there will be significant operational benefits.

It will enable industry research collaboration into new energy technologies, teaching and training opportunities, plus provide a live integrated microgrid demonstrator to assist the energy sector.

Monash University's Passive House office

Monash University’s Passive House office

The university has had a sustainable buildings policy in place since 2010 that has mandated all new buildings above $100 million in project cost must be certified to a suitable international sustainability standard. The Clayton campus has eight Green Star-rated buildings including the Briggs and Jackomos residences, Australia’s first multi-residential development to achieve a Green Star – Multi Unit Residential As Built v1 rating.

The campus is also home to the 6 Star Green Star New Horizons building, a joint venture with CSIRO that provides space for the Faculty of Engineering and CSIRO researchers, and also the Green Chemical Futures building. Four residential halls – Logan, Holman, Campbell and Turner – have Green Star ratings. The university also recently developed a commercial office space with Passive House certification.

Power shortage drives innovation

dwp|suters chief executive Leone Lorrimer says a lack of available power at Western Sydney University’s Parramatta South campus drove the 6 Star Green Star outcome for the new science building. To avoid penalties for exceeding their power limit for the site, the university opted to go above and beyond its usual 5 Star mandate for every campus building.

The new building, which will open for the 2017 teaching year, relies on rooftop photovoltaic cells for pretty much all its energy as well as hot water. A hydronic system will be used for heating and cooling.

“It is actually the building itself that does the heating and the cooling,” Lorrimer says. “The real innovation here is that you are not relying on systems – you are actually using the building itself.”

The building uses active slabs, incorporating 22 kilometres of hydronic pipes through which heated or cooled water runs. “And that means that the only air you need to move around is the fresh air so that reduces your demand on power – everything can be smaller and more efficient,” she says.

Inflatable ducts move the small amount of air that needs to circulate. “They are literally just using a fabric so they collapse and hang when they are not being used … so minimisation of material there, you are not using any metal ducting, you are just using this fabric duct to supply the very little air that’s required.”

The lighting in the laboratories consists of very thin LED strip lighting and daylight is maximised to reduce reliance on lighting during the day.

The building is programmed to systematically shut down if it’s guzzling too much energy. “It goes through an order of priority so the last thing, of course, is the research equipment but there’s a descending order of priority that will shut that building down if it’s using too much power.”

There is a raft of other initiatives that bring the building to 6 Star standard, “right down to the way the footings of the building are built, which are domes of recycled car batteries!”

Solar purchase agreements and precinct energy systems

Like Monash, the University of Technology Sydney has committed to achieving a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. With its inner city location and relatively small roof areas, UTS has limited potential for the installation of renewable energy. So it developed a new business model for off-site solar purchasing that other inner-city universities could replicate. In an Australian-first, the university signed a solar power purchase agreement to buy the output of a 200-kilowatt solar farm in the Hunter Valley, which supplies around 15 per cent of the Frank Gehry-designed Dr Chau Chak Wing Business School’s annual electricity consumption.

UTS's Dr Chau Chak Wing Business School. Image: Andrew Worssam

UTS’s Dr Chau Chak Wing Business School. Image: Andrew Worssam

In addition, the Faculty of Engineering and IT building has become a “living lab” with solar PV panels, a wind turbine, hydrogen fuel cell and parabolic trough solar thermal concentrators.

Another innovation involves sourcing cooling energy from the Central Park thermal plant across the street in a model district energy system. The initiative will reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 2.2 per cent or 1111 tonnes of CO2-e each year. UTS is also investigating the supply of recycled water from Central Park.

All new buildings must now achieve a minimum 5 Star Green Star rating. Since 2014, when the Dr Chau Chak Wing building achieved a 5 Star Design Education v1 rating, the Faculty of Engineering and IT building has achieved a 5 Star Design and As Built rating and the Faculty of Science and Graduate School of Health Building has achieved a 6 Star Design rating (As Built rating in progress).

UTS has recently completed a $9 million energy efficiency retrofit of existing buildings, which included lighting and plant upgrades, HVAC retro-commissioning and the installation of more than 400 electrical, water, gas and thermal meters as well as a campus-wide energy management system to manage and monitor energy and water use.

Timber construction and translucent solar cells

Allen Jack+Cottier is working on several designs for universities across the country, which aim to set new benchmarks in environmentally sustainable design.

Typically, all new education buildings are designed to achieve a 6 Star Green Star rating while new student housing buildings target a 5 Star Green Star rating.

“We’re finding that environmental design now includes consideration of the human element of sustainability through use of the WELL Building Standard,” says director architecture Brian Mariotti. “We’re working with renewable building materials such as [cross-laminated timber] technology, which is a sustainable material that is growing in popularity in Australia.”

If a university is prominent in the STEM disciplines [science, technology, engineering and maths], the team works to showcase these disciplines in the building design. “Buildings can be considered as a living lab,” Mariotti says. “Students not only work and live in the buildings, but also learn from the buildings.”

On-site renewable energy, such as geothermal power, is becoming more economical and can be accessible for students to study and test in operation. Photovoltaic cells applied to facades and roofs also use cutting-edge technology. “In urban sites, the roof terrace is often the only outdoor space available,” Mariotti says. “So we are proposing innovative translucent panels rather than traditional solid panels to enable plants to grow on the roof terrace underneath them.”

To aircondition or not to aircondition?

Allen Jack + Cottier has worked on several student accommodation projects in recent years including Urbanest in Sydney’s Haymarket, Edith Cowan University in WA and Australia Street Student Housing in Camperdown (aimed at University of Sydney students).

Australia Street student housing

Australia Street student housing

Two 20-storey student housing towers are being developed in Darling Harbour with a high-spec façade that is unusual for student housing.

“They are like the façades you see on office buildings, so very well insulated, double glazed windows, fully insulated panels, and it’s a high-tech system that is assembled quite rapidly,” Mariotti says. “There are no leaks or drafts especially in a 20-storey building because you get a lot of wind up higher. It’s a really new high-tech solution to student housing.”

On the flip side, the building is fully airconditioned. “What is driving a lot of projects at the moment is the international market so for example a lot of people are coming from South East Asia and Singapore and they kind of expect airconditioning,” Mariotti says. “So it’s a bit of cultural baggage.”

Allen Jack + Cottier director architecture Mark Louw says natural ventilation is preferable when possible. “It’s always been integral to our work in terms of attempting to cross ventilate rather than bring in airconditioning,” he says. “But the problem that we have is the market forces like the real estate agents and the buyers who have this expectation that everything is airconditioned.”

They took a low-energy approach on a student housing project in Brisbane. “It had quite innovative cross-over apartment layouts so that every apartment had two facades so you could get through-breezes,” Mariotti says.

The insulated building also incorporated high ceilings, ceiling fans and fan lights above the doors to achieve a comfortable environment without airconditioning.

dws|suters took a similar approach for the refurbishment of D Block at the Queensland University of Technology.

“We opened up the whole of the ground floor there and allowed air to move right through it,” Lorrimer says. “It’s part of the undercroft of the building but it’s treated as an extension of the landscape.”

Much of the ground floor is open to the daylight and the elements with beautiful timber seating creating pleasant student gathering areas to take advantage of the external climate.

Pay more now, save later

Unlike in the residential development sector, education sector clients are often willing to outlay more money during construction to save money in the long term.

“They are far more conscience of the operational cost and increasing utility costs,” Louw says. This was the case for the Research and Resource Centre at Moore Theological College in Newtown, which is due for completion in November.

“We aimed at a 4.5 NABERS rating, which certainly exceeds what would be expected through normal building regulations, and we did that because we were given advice by the consultants that we could reduce the energy costs by 42 per cent,” he says. “So while it did involve additional construction costs, ultimately at the other side it’s going to be reduced operational costs.”

Campus becomes city of innovation

Last year Western Australia’s largest university, Curtin University, received Australia’s first 5 Star Green Star – Communities rating for its Master Plan, which aims to turn its Bentley Campus into a “city of innovation”.

Strategic asset planning principal Dr Rocio Bona says in line with Curtin’s commitments to energy efficiency, a series of development guidelines have been established for all new developments within the university.

A green roof on the UTS Faculty of Science Graduate School of Health. Image: Andrew Worssam

A green roof on the UTS Faculty of Science Graduate School of Health. Image: Andrew Worssam

“We are just starting stage one of the greater Curtin masterplan so expressions of interest have gone out to developers to help us deliver that within those guidelines,” she says.

Curtin is aiming to have a 5 Star Green Star design outcome for all of the built environment –residential housing as well as educational facilities. There is also a requirement to incorporate some of the university’s research into new developments.

“So it’s about integrating what the developer is doing with the research that is being undertaken by Curtin and hopefully that will bring about innovation and new ideas around energy efficiency and, in particular, the use of clean energy,” Bona says.

A specified percentage of the construction cost will be allocated to innovation. “We envision that that innovation component will be tied to sustainability outcomes,” Bona says.

Initiatives that have been implemented include upgrading the 11,000 square metre space of the Robertson Library with LED panels. “We are talking about – per fitting – around 75 per cent reduction in peak energy demand alongside reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and cooling demand, which then translates in less energy used by our cooling system,” Bona says.

LED panels have been introduced in all public spaces, new projects and refurbishments as well as occupancy sensors in some locations.

Submetering of buildings for electricity has been completed and next year submetering for thermal energy will begin. An energy management plan will inform specific targets for energy and water use, while a platform has been implemented to track that energy use.

Comments

3 Responses to “How universities are stepping up to the climate challenge”

  • How else universities could step up is by taking a more pragmatic approach to delivering more savings more quickly with lower overheads from their existing assets.

    Certainly on the water side we have experienced all too many cases where efficiency programs despite a very attractive payback took years to deliver, or, at worst, never got delivered citing lack of funding and bureaucracy despite a very good ROI and proven implementation track record.

    Am I too negative, or can uni’s indeed be as innovative as their very reason for being when it comes to FM?

    • Tina Perinotto says:

      Oh we hear dreadful whispered stories about the best universities with appalling management practises and great waste of their scarce resources. Others who have a sustainability champion at the helm doing heroic things. This is the next story we will do on universities so be keen to hear from those who have a story to tell. Send us a note at editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

  • The Fifth Estate leading the way as always with well researched and produced articles like this one.

    Much better than a certain report about Universities and subsequent article in the Australian that was very poorly researched with selective data!

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