Learning to make a difference

27th February 2015


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Scotland's oldest university is aiming to be energy self-sufficient by 2016. Catherine Early reports

A paper mill had been operating in the village of Guardbridge outside St Andrews in Fife for more than 130 years when it closed in 2008. One reason for its demise was the rising cost of energy, ironic considering its imminent transformation to a biomass plant constructed primarily to slash energy bills at St Andrews University.

The 6MW biomass plant is a key part of St Andrews' ambitions to become the first university in the UK to be carbon-neutral for energy by 2016. A 12MW wind farm being built just outside the town will also help the university realise its ambition. Together, the projects should reduce the institution's carbon emissions by 29,000 tonnes a year.

St Andrews is investing in the biomass plant and wind farm in response to rising energy prices. Its annual bill for gas, water and electricity is predicted to soar from £3.2 million in 2005/06 to £20 million by 2020, even though its total consumption remains flat. The university's main academic focus is science, and subjects such as chemistry, physics, supercomputing and research on energy storage use around 50% of its energy.

The university's senior governors realised that the escalating costs of energy posed a direct threat to frontline teaching and resources and were not difficult to persuade of the need to act, according to Roddy Yarr, energy and environment manager at St Andrews. "They understood the link between carbon and cost. Energy was seen as a big risk by the university," he said.

Powerful ambitions

Yarr began his renewable energy ambitions in 2007 with plans for a six-turbine wind farm at Kenly, three miles from St Andrews. But the project proved controversial and was opposed by some residents and the local planning authority, Fife Council. A survey of local residents by the university found 46% in support of the wind farm, while 36% opposed it.

Fife was one of several local authorities in Scotland to impose a moratorium on granting planning permission for wind farms, and the university's proposals for Kenly were unanimously refused by council officers and councillors on the ground of visual impact. The university argued that, if it could not reduce costs by producing its own energy, 10 full-time jobs a year would be at risk. It appealed against the decision and the wind farm was approved in October 2013 after two-and-a-half years in the planning system. In the meantime, Fife council underwent a radical change of heart on wind energy, even planning to construct wind turbines on its own land, Yarr says.

The university is now commissioning a developer to plan the project's grid connections and build six turbines. It is keen for the wind farm to be operating by October 2016 before new government subsidies under the contract for difference (CfD) system come into effect, Yarr says. "We estimate we'd get 10-15% less revenue with CfDs," he explains. Yarr adds that the university will also benefit financially under the carbon reduction commitment because payment on energy generated by a scheme participant is exempt.

Whichever contractor the university chooses to develop the wind farm will need to resolve technical issues with grid connections. The university wants power generated at Kenly to connect directly to the university's high-voltage network in its North Haugh complex, where its energy-intensive science research is located. A combination of overground and underground cables would need to be laid to enable a direct connection, Yarr says.

The community should also benefit, with excess supply sold into the national grid and a proportion of profit going into a trust to benefit the area.

Burning desire

The Guardbridge biomass project was much more straightforward than the wind farm in planning terms and received permission last October, Yarr says. The £25 million energy centre will pump hot water four miles underground to St Andrews to heat and cool its laboratories and student residences. The university secured a £10 million grant from the Scottish Funding Council towards the cost of the scheme.

The university is tendering for a company to design, build and operate the plant, which will be fuelled by up to 17,000 tonnes of virgin roundwood a year. Yarr is aiming for much of this to come from the local supply chain as there is already a strong biomass market in the area. "A big part of what we're trying to do is to promote a local supply chain," he says.

Yarr has asked contractors to engage with local suppliers as part of their bid. For example, farmers could be interested in selling felled "shelter belt" trees planted on the edges of fields to prevent soil erosion. Such trees have a lifespan of around 30 years, after which the farmer would typically have to pay to remove them.

The biomass plant is expected to be running by December, when it will be known as the Sustainable Power and Research Campus. The site is also home to a micro-brewer and small-scale agricultural business growing micro-vegetables, and Yarr has plenty of plans to extend use of the site to other local businesses or university enterprises. Some of the buildings on the site could also be used to store books for the university and house its datacentre, he says. There is also potential for solar panels on the roofs and an anaerobic digestion plant to take the town's waste.

"There's a wider agenda here. It's going to be a busy site, a local-carbon campus where these functions are carried out," he says.

Resource management

Yarr's ambitions to boost the university's green credentials do not stop at energy. He wants St Andrews to be zero waste-to-landfill by 2020. "We don't treat waste as a waste product; we see it as a resource," he says.

When Yarr began working at the university in 2005, its recycling rate was 4%. It is now 73%, all of which is segregated on site so it can be sold as high-value waste rather than commingled waste. A key part of his strategy to boost recycling was to enlist the cleaning staff to help. He did this by explaining to them that properly segregated waste had a much higher value and that the university would benefit financially. "Once they got that, recycling figures went through the roof," he reports.

Cleaners were given stickers to put on bins that contained mixed recyclables and these would not be emptied, he says. "Cleaners were empowered; they were in charge," he explains. Some people were resistant to the new system but Yarr explained it to them in person so that cleaners did not bear the brunt of any criticism.

"We keep the bins consistent between the buildings, and other simple things like that. People want to do it but you have to make it easy," he says. In 2013, the university concentrated recycling bins in communal areas to encourage people to recycle on the go. This has worked to a point, but there is more to do. Yarr concedes that there is still a lot of contaminated waste going in with the recycling, which then has to be sorted by staff.

Achieving the final 27% towards his zero waste-to-landfill target is proving a challenge. "We're getting there, but the last part is hard. There's no silver bullet," he says. "It really is down to people to do the right thing, but that's the problem. If it comes to 2019 and we can't meet the target we might have to think again about how we meet it. I'd rather fail the target the way we're doing it than give it over to someone to segregate on a materials recovery facility somewhere else - I'm not sure that's the way to go, but we'll see."

Challenging buildings

Improving the energy efficiency of the university's building stock is also a challenge, Yarr acknowledges: "We have 600-year-old buildings and conservation areas, which are not easy to refurbish. We're focusing on boiler controls, replacing old boilers and behaviour change." Once the biomass plant in Guardbridge is producing energy, he says, there will be options for heat networks to supply other buildings on campus.

Fortunately, the older buildings are used mainly as teaching spaces, so do not have as high an impact on energy use as the high-tech research in which the university specialises. The research, which includes areas such as supercomputing and energy storage,
tends to take place in the university's newer buildings, which are away from the conservation area and are easier to refurbish.

All new buildings procured by the university have to meet a BREEAM excellent rating as a minimum, Yarr says. In 2012, a new laboratory building to house research into microbial infection and human immunity achieved an outstanding rating. It was the first such building in the UK to achieve such a standard. The building costs less to heat, light and power than predicted and beat all environmental targets set within the first nine months of operation, the university reports. Features include extra-efficient insulation and heating, and habitats for local wildlife.

Community work

Yarr's environment team has also encouraged the students to get involved in improving the university's environmental performance. It secured a grant to fund a full-time employee for a year to lead student activity, which included an intra-hall competition to see which student residence could reduce its energy consumption most. Students have also taken part in initiatives on transport, energy and locally sourced food. "Students respond better to peer-to-peer engagement," Yarr says. "An old fart like me going to talk to students doesn't have the same resonance."

His team has also set up a student group, known as "Transition University of St Andrews". It is part of the UK's transition town network. The resident-led St Andrews environmental network (StAndEn) works on similar themes, and together the two groups have successfully bid three times for funding from the Scottish government's climate challenge fund. The money has been used to support community-led carbon reduction projects.

The latest grant, of £148,000, was awarded in November and will help to save 300 tonnes of carbon a year through six interlinked projects. These include a "grow your own" food cooperative; neighbourhood-based energy advice sessions; a home energy advice scheme targeting rural households; and a town-wide bike maintenance and rental programme.

Yarr's team also carries out extensive work to engage with the university's 9,000 staff. Each new member of staff has an induction in the university's environmental policies and activities. From this process, Yarr's team has recruited a network of environmental facilitators who meet regularly to discuss upcoming issues and challenges and how to resolve them. "It's standard stuff but, together with transition activities, there's a lot going on to help spread awareness of what we're doing and climate change generally," he says.

Ultimately, Yarr believes that his work exemplifies the sort of effort universities should be leading on. "Tackling climate change in a demonstrable fashion enables students, staff and stakeholders to understand what can be done and to enable learning. In a way this is what universities are for: to demonstrate good practice through learning," he says.

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