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Dr Aaron Gillich, London Southbank University

11 May 2020, 8:25 UTC Share

Towards a Carbon-Free Campus: How a Balanced Energy Network can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels

Despite decades of protests and raising awareness, carbon emissions have continued to increase steadily.

2020 will be the first year that we have seen a marked impact in reducing emissions; sadly not due to any technical or policy success, but rather to the current global pandemic. Voters have an ever-growing appetite for a green future, and policy makers recognise that they need to act urgently to reduce carbon emissions. We must take the opportunity to ‘build back better’, and London South Bank University (LSBU) is already finding solutions, which show that change is not nearly as challenging as people might think.

To build a carbon-free community you really only need to do two things: stop burning fossil fuels, and buy green electricity.
The latter is relatively straightforward. Renewables power more of the UK grid each year. Generating electricity from clean wind rather than dirty coal doesn’t require consumers to replace their appliances. Big carbon savings can be achieved with little disruption to end users.

To stop burning fossil fuels is trickier, as roughly 80% of UK buildings are heated by gas boilers. In order to have a net zero carbon community every single gas boiler has to go as soon as possible, as every year we delay is another year the carbon curve continues to climb. However, this will require making changes to nearly every single building in the UK. It sounds daunting, but it is achievable, and UK university campuses are leading the way, by developing solutions that can then be replicated and scaled up across the UK.

LSBU has long been a leader in this type of low-carbon innovation. In 2008, we pioneered the idea of a green living lab with our Centre for Efficient and Renewable Energy in Buildings (CEREB) facility. In the past decade, the cutting edge renewables and ground source heat used in CEREB have become widely adopted by industry.

In 2018, LSBU built the Balanced Energy Network (BEN): the UK’s first 5th Generation Heat Network. BEN has several innovative features enabling it to build on the efficiency gains of previous generations and making it among the most advanced heat networks in the world. Rather than burning fossil fuels to heat buildings, it utilises a special type of low carbon heat pump which, using ambient-temperature water, can actually match the performance of a gas boiler. BEN is able to link the heat pumps into the existing boiler circuit, meaning that expensive retrofits aren’t required. The heat pump provides most of the heat while boilers can pick up any peaks. Additionally, when these boilers reach end of life, BEN provides an alternative to replacing them with another gas boiler.

BEN has also taken significant steps forward in heat network control system design. Every component in the BEN network, including heat pumps, water storage tanks, even the buildings themselves, are linked up to a common control platform that continually speaks to the grid and can respond to short term changes in price signals. LSBU is currently experimenting with the optimal ways to maintain comfort while distributing and managing the loads across BEN’s systems in a way that minimises costs and carbon emissions.

BEN is not zero carbon. The buildings still use gas, but far less than before and the performance of the network increases each year as the controls are optimised and the grid adds more renewables.

Government is well aware of the need for high-level policies to phase out the use of fossil fuels for heating. As they carry out their consultations and gather evidence, Universities must play a role in demonstrating what is possible. BEN is frequently visited by national and local government officials, as well as by industry professionals and the approach is beginning to be replicated across the UK.

BEN has helped show that getting gas out of UK buildings doesn’t have to be daunting. The technology is ready, and we can do it one boiler at a time. And we absolutely can and must start now.

Dr Aaron Gillich is an Associate Professor and Head of Civil and Building Services Engineering at London South Bank University. His research focuses on the cross-sectoral issues around decarbonising cities. He has a keen interest in creating stronger links between technical research and policy making in the built environment.

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