University Powered Community Energy Hubs

Friday, February 22, 2013

Universities might just be the solution to decentralized community power

This might not be a new idea to some but it certainly is a new development that has caught my attention, and just maybe it should have your attention too. University powered community energy hubs are exactly what they sound like, a centralized energy system for houses within a community that is supplied by excess heat from a University campus.

A little known fact about Universities is that they tend to over-produce heat in extraordinary quantities. This isn't because campuses are inefficient behemoths (although they sometimes can be), it is simply the reality of trying to generate enough heat to distribute around a large network. For instance, here at uOttawa, in order to heat the far side of the campus we need to create a whole bunch of extra heat at the power plant to ensure sure that the heat at the other end is adequate.

In order to be more efficient, uOttawa has been working at reducing heating loads on campus which helps us reduce our overall costs and environmental impact. But regardless of how efficient we get, our boilers are often oversized (meaning that they generate more heat than we need) just in case of emergencies. Think of it this way, you have a 4x4 truck because you live out in the country with unpaved roads. Most of the time you are driving on the highway so you don't actually need the 4x4 capacity, but for those times when you get home you want to make sure you aren't going to get stuck.

You might just say "why not reduce the amount of energy you are putting out during off-peak hours?" Unfortunately that isn't always possible because the whole system becomes more inefficient. Let's use another car analogy to explain this. Cars are more efficient when they are on the highway (better kilometres per litre) then when they are driving in the City. They are tend to require less maintenance because they are running in their sweet zone. The same is true for big industrial boilers, they like working near full throttle. The down side is that they produce more heat than you need.

This is where community energy hubs come into play. Seeing as we have extra heat to play with, why not  put that heat? When the University is generating too much heat, it could be dumped into a heating loop that is feeding the houses adjacent to the campus. When demand for heat on campus goes up and less heat goes into the loop, the houses use their own heating systems to pick up the slack.

The University of Ottawa is looking to embark on a pilot project to heat a housing coop adjacent to the campus. The details are not finalized but there seems to be capacity in our system to do so. Projects like this make sense for a whole bunch of reasons. The first of course being that we can put this excess heat to use rather than venting it into the environment (score one for Mother Earth).

The other reason this makes sense is because it opens up the possibility for university campuses to act as mini utility providers. Research intensive campuses have utility requirements that far exceed what typical municipalities can offer and are therefore forced to build additional capacity. By allowing universities to share their excess energy, we can create decentralized energy hubs that make the entire system a little more efficient.

The other benefit for this is the possibility of an alternative revenue stream for large campuses. Universities operate their facilities at a tremendous expense. Keeping space and equipment in good condition for world-class research isn't cheap. Ryerson University recently announced that it had over $290 Million in deferred maintenance to deal with, an astronomical number but not altogether surprising given the state of academic funding these days. By allowing universities to play the role of a limited utility supplier, they could recover some of the costs associated with maintaining these expensive systems.

Certainly a great deal more thinking needs to go into these Community Energy Hubs but you can bet that I will be keeping my eye on any new developments.

~ jON - campus sustainability manager
photo credit - jonathan rausseo

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