Low-carbon campuses lead the way

Solar panels are only part of universities’ plans for using alternative energies. Image: CSIRO Science image.

With a long-term interest in their built fabric (and energy costs) Australia’s universities are embracing innovative technologies and new strategies to reduce their carbon footprint.

Like a number of universities across Australia, University of South Australia’s (UniSA) Mawson Lakes campus is getting a low-carbon make-over, powered by innovative technologies. Solar power, flow batteries, a hydrogen fuel stack and thermal energy storage are all in the mix.
The new campus building will be fitted with an electrolyser that uses surplus energy to produce and store hydrogen, which is then used in the fuel cell to generate electricity on demand. This becomes a reliable electricity supply, capable of becoming a backup power supply during periods of little or no solar power generation. The impact of integrating these technologies into a campus is predicted to reduce the carbon footprint of the campus and reduce stress on the energy grid.

Hydrogen cells are not just for hybrid cars. Stationary cells can provide power to buildings. Image: Lars Plougmann.

Set to be completed by 2019, the campus will house one of the country’s largest systems of flow batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. Although hydrogen fuel cell technology is not new, it is on the rise as a successful way to provide localised baseload power. The CSIRO is currently investigating a hybrid energy solution for the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), based on renewable energy, hydrogen, fuel cells and battery storage.

In the future the MCG’s huge energy requirements could be provided by hydrogen cells. Image: Sascha Wenninger.

The University of Melbourne has also created a sustainability plan, as it moves to zero net emissions by 2020. In doing so, the university made a point of downgrading the role of carbon offsets, preferring to change buildings, energy sources and behaviours. Allan Tait, the University of Melbourne’s Chief Financial Officer and chair of their Sustainability Executive Group said, "We are seeking to minimise the amount of carbon offsets that we purchase because we don’t actually believe that it is the most appropriate way to achieve zero net emissions or carbon neutrality,” highlighting that offsetting carbon does not support new technologies or overall sustainability.

Universities are investing in new technologies to reduce their carbon footprint. Image: CSIRO Science Image.

Instead, the university will work with researchers and other organisations, including funding partners BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, to investigate low-carbon technologies and find ways to reduce their dependencies on the main energy grid by 10 percent.
University of Queensland (UQ) is another university looking to reduce their energy consumption, to create a low-carbon campus. As UQ says, “With more than 700 buildings, 25,000 computers and 40,000 staff and students, electricity consumption accounts for more than 90 per cent of our carbon emissions.” Their multipronged approach includes providing solar-powered recharging stations for electric vehicles, retrofitting lighting, and pushing for behavioural change.
Recommendations include not opening windows in air-conditioned spaces, not leaving air-conditioning on overnight, and moving heat sources such as photocopies, computers and fridges away from thermostats, which often confuse heat sensors and then over-compensate with air conditioning.

Defin-Lend Lease and the Henley Property Group’s AusZEH - zero emission house – first produced in 2010. Image: CSIRO Science Image.

As holders of large swathes of land, universities are major consumers of electricity but it’s not just an interest in their own energy usage that is driving them towards alternative power sources. Investing in new technology could boost student and academic numbers. As the energy transition takes shape, skills and talent will need to keep up.
Dr Stephen Berry, UniSA’s Research Node for Low Carbon Living, notes that the facility will draw researchers and students who are interested in furthering renewable energies: “It will bring a host of new jobs and investment opportunities to the State as well as inspiring and developing the next generation of renewable energy professionals. We expect this project to lead to more educational, training and R&D opportunities with government and industry at Mawson Lakes, providing a holistic approach to cutting-edge sustainable technologies.”

Related Content

View more