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With students all sent home and campuses empty, now is a great time for universities to find ways of lowering carbon emissions and running costs

As the world tries to come to terms with the COVID-19 pandemic, buildings across the country remain empty and in lockdown, from hotels, retail stores, restaurants, bars, gyms and cinemas.

For the university sector, all of these buildings and more already form part of the community on each campus and with students all sent home, the lockdown is actually providing an excellent opportunity to examine the carbon footprint of the estate, with facilities managers able to explore and plan for improvements.

“There are quick wins to be had for all”

Kevin Pocock Kevin Pocock Business Development Manager

Amazing diversity

I was recently interviewed on Modern Building Services TV to explore how universities can lower carbon emissions and look at the driving forces behind this urgent need.

Primarily it’s about climate change of course but with a young, engaged and often active customer base, universities are now being ranked on their environmental and sustainability credentials.

It’s amazing to think that collectively, the combined estate of further education has over 16,000 buildings, covering 30 million square metres of floor space.

In addition to this, the age of these buildings will range from over 1,000 years, to state-of-the-art, modern facilities built in the last year.

The buildings also have an incredibly diverse range of uses, from the obvious lecture theatres and classrooms, to laboratories and workshops, retail, restaurant, sports facilities and gyms, plus accommodation and of course, theatres, bars and clubs.

Where are you in the League?

Students are undoubtedly driving the conversation on climate change, but looking deeper into the recent People & Planet University League table, it was a surprise to see that two-thirds of UK universities are expected to fall short of meeting 2020 carbon reduction targets.

The League table monitors carbon management plans and targets as well as actual performance in reducing emissions.

If you're unfamiliar, the formerly known Higher Education Funding Council for England developed a carbon reduction strategy back in 2011, requiring universities to develop strategies to help them achieve a 43% reduction in their carbon emissions between 2005 and 2020. With the year of reckoning upon us, it appears just 49 of 154 institutions are on track to meet this target.

Worryingly, some universities don't appear to have invested at all in energy-saving strategies, with several institutions achieving 0% in their carbon reduction and reporting no commitment to divesting from fossil fuels. The table also shows that just eight universities have a policy to invest in renewable energy. Thus it seems many universities have slowed down on what was a promising and energetic period of commitment following when the initial targets were set.

Where can universities improve?

To make a quick, yet drastic, impact on carbon reduction, universities can look to their current heating and cooling systems.

Undergoing an energy audit would highlight where improvements can be made as well as the areas to be targeted, offering a clear starting point for an energy management strategy.

Not only that, but increasing the efficiency of HVAC systems would no doubt reduce energy bills as well as emissions - a win-win for any institution.

The Brite Green Higher Education Sector Carbon Report acknowledged that the advice universities need to follow is no different from that which is already offered to businesses and organisations to help reduce their energy bills. Identify key areas where energy wastage is highest, and develop a plan to reduce usage.

Oxford Brookes University, for example, has installed smart technology around the university which will essentially adjust energy use in rooms to solve the issue of heating being left on in an unoccupied room, or when windows are left open whilst the heating is on. This would be an excellent initiative to implement in student halls, considering accommodation is often a large part of an institutions' total emissions.

Another easy win for universities would be to re-assess their current air conditioning systems, and where possible, upgrade to systems which use lower Global Warming Potential (GWP) refrigerant R32.

Such air conditioning systems use up to 20% less refrigerant than higher GWP refrigerant equivalents, making them more efficient. And with more efficiency comes lower carbon emissions and lower energy costs. Alternatively, institutions could invest in Hybrid VRF systems which limit the amount of refrigerant being used by using water as a replacement in occupied spaces, making them a simple way to stick within the carbon emission targets.

International travel is another hindrance to reducing university carbon emissions. The trend towards collaboration between academics from different countries, as well as the growth of the conference scene has led to a significant increase in plane trips. Of course, this collaborative effort is excellent and a sign of progression in UK education. But video-conference technology has come on leaps and bounds and could be another easy win for carbon reduction.

Positive steps

Of course, we can't ignore the positive steps that have already been taken. We only have to look at the number of universities declaring a climate emergency to recognise the issue is being taken seriously; The University of Manchester, The University of Sussex and Cardiff University to name but a few.

Promisingly, 76 UK universities have announced some form of divestment from fossil fuels, meaning greater investment in sustainable methods of heating and cooling. The University of Northampton's new Waterside Campus, for example, will generate its heating and hot water via an on-site energy centre incorporating woodchip biomass boilers and a combined heat and power system.

The University of Nottingham similarly is making use of a range of renewable technologies across its estate to provide heating and hot water, including air and ground source heat pumps, solar electricity and biomass boilers. Meanwhile, the University of Hertfordshire secured a BREEAM Outstanding rating for their zero-carbon accredited student accommodation site. The student halls utilise a biomass-fuelled energy centre in order to generate energy for a large part of the campus.

Impressively, The University of Gloucestershire, who topped the People & Planet league table announced a total divestment from fossil fuels with immediate effect back in 2018,  as well an overachievement of a 46% reduction in their carbon emissions, despite having expanded their estate! These reductions were a result of switching boilers to cleaner fuels, introducing LED lighting, using smarter building management controls and improving insulation. Another huge success from the university includes their commitment to integrating sustainable development into their courses, with their goal to change the 'brain print' of their students and graduates. 

Concluding remarks

The innovative developments demonstrated by numerous universities are highly promising, showing that where our institutions are prepared to make drastic decisions, significant carbon emission savings are being made.

And with the wealth of intellectual resources held in UK universities, and the significant opportunities to work across interdisciplinary departments, drastic, bold decisions are what we want from our centres of inspiration and innovation.

No doubt this is what students who are passionately advocating for climate action want also.

There are quick wins to be had by honing in on heating and cooling systems, which has been a significant focus for several universities.

But for the most part, these changes are coming too slow and without urgency. However, with a lack of government support and increasing pressure on university facilities, is it any surprise that real progress is being slowed down?

Rather than expecting these institutions to have the answers immediately, perhaps we should be doing more to support them from a manufacturing and advisory point of view. Climate change is a universal problem, so it only makes sense that we all offer solutions and advice where practical and possible.

A collaborative response is what will help both universities, and the UK as a whole, reach carbon reduction targets and is what we hope will be the approach to climate change issues going forward.

Kevin Pocock is a Corporate Solutions technical specialist