Energy efficiency: are all our efforts going to waste?

Trinity’s efforts to reduce energy consumption had never been more important at this time of year, or indeed, at a time when we’re watching the cost of everything around us so closely. How can we combine personal responsibility with the work that has already been done?

Trinity’s efforts to reduce energy consumption had never been more important at this time of year, or indeed, at a time when we’re watching the cost of everything around us so closely. How can we combine personal responsibility with the work that has already been done?

Trinity’s participation in the e3 project over the past couple of years has shown that it has taken even greater measures to ensure that it is efficient energy-wise. How has this initiative helped our college maintain its promise to reduce energy costs? As we all know, college buildings consume large amounts of electricity, gas and water. Each building in Trinity has been refurbished at various stages over the past two decades, which makes me wonder: is it feasibly possible to make costs lower?

The e3 project (Energy, Environemt and Economy), a scheme part funded by Sustainable Energy Ireland, which involves DCU, UCD, Trinity and DIT has been underway since 2004, and has been successful in a number of areas. Its major goal was to reduce energy consumption in thirty buildings by 10% over a three year period, and it was projected that this would save a massive €800,000 per year if achieved. The buildings in Trinity which were originally targeted were the Arts Building, the Hamilton, Goldsmith Hall, the School of Nursing, Berkeley Library, IAMS, the Ussher, the O’Reilly Building, Biotechnology and Áras an Phiarsaigh, among others.

Figures at the end of 2006 showed a 7.2% reduction in the consumption of energy in eight of the buildings listed above. 2007 statistics show that the project was committed to ensuring that savings in these buildings and added another ten to the list, marked for the same intention. But how has progress been since then?

A common component of all four colleges involved in e3 is that part of their electricity comes from Irish wind farms, specifically, from Airtricity – a
renewable supplier. College purchased a substantial amount of renewable electricity in 2008: 26,600,000 kWh is the figure cited. In addition, it is said to be the main supply of electricity to campus for this year, and also in 2007. This purchase has made significant savings of 15,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, whereas other sources such as gas or oil would be much more detrimental to the environment. Undoubtedly, the cost of electricity will rise over the next year in particular, owing to economic factors, but Trinity states that it has entered into a contract that ensures costs will indeed be kept to a minimum for two years.

The curious thing about the Hamilton is that in four of the ten completed months of this year, the levels of electricity were higher than in 2004

Older buildings in college undoubtedly take much more energy to heat, and thus, the CYLON system that was put in place in newer buildings has been installed in older ones too, leading to refurbishments. These refurbishments are intended to make older buildings on campus much more energy efficient and include features such as heat recovery strategies, more efficient boilers and low energy lighting to name but a few measures. Retrofitting these buildings to bring them to the level of efficiency that newer buildings on campus have, however, would be expensive, perhaps prohibitively so. The same can be said for other colleges around the country who are facing similar problems such as UCD, but in comparison to figures from DCU and Maynooth, Trinity is forced to take greater initiatives, as it is much easier to have low energy design and greater insulation in newer buildings. However, it is worth noting here that over the past four years, the general unit cost of electricity has risen by 46%, and one report noted that there would be a further 17% increase in the next year.

Furthermore, for all these worthwhile attempts at reduction, it seems that there are areas in which college electricity costs are already increasing. Take the Hamilton Building as an example. Despite using the most recent energy efficiency technology, it uses a significant proportion of the energy purchased by College. The curious thing about the Hamilton building in particular is that, in four of the ten completed months of this year, the levels of electricity used were higher than those in 2004: the first year of measurements for the e3 programme. Worse still though, in all ten months of this year so far, the levels of electricity use have been consistently higher than those in 2007. This is a concerning trend and, perhaps, a signal that potential savings are becoming harder to exploit.

We can break these figures down somewhat, in order to illustrate what is happening more precisely, at least in terms of usage. As stated, the e3 programme started measuring in the Hamilton building in February 2004. In that month, the building used 89,087 kWh of electricity. In 2005, this increased to 94,191 kWh or, in other words, 105.7% of the 2004 figure. In 2007, for each month, there was the first widespread drop in electricity consumption – with each month amounting to 83.3% of the total in 2004: a considerable achievement and a dramatic drop. 

However, this drop was reversed drastically this year, starting in January and – as of the end of October – the Hamilton building is looking at a 6.5% increase in electricity consumption on last year, based on figures from e3.
Moving on to the Ussher Library, we find that a similar – though not as dramatic – trend has taken hold. This year it has been somewhat more difficult to find energy savings and, in eight of the ten months completed so far, we’ve found that there has been more energy used than in the corresponding months of 2007.  

There are, of course, multiple reasons which may explain this. To begin with, one could hypothesise that any decrease in unnecessary emissions has simply been offset by an increased usage of computers in the Hamilton building. This is a valid explanation, though it can’t quite account for all of the increased usage in the Hamilton, particularly this year.  

A second proposal consists of the idea that most of the easily implemented savings in electricity energy have now been achieved and that it will – from here on – require a higher degree of capital expenditure in order to further halt the growth of electricity consumption. A third, and perhaps more abstract, theory is that since – for the first time since e3 ratings started – Ireland has had a below average temperature for five of the last ten months, it might simply be a behavioural shift, with more people spending time indoors. This, however, seems largely hypothetical. 

One thing which is worth noting throughout this recent increase in electricity usage is that it seems to be confined to Trinity College when College’s e3 statistics are compared with other institutions.

For instance, DCU, another participant in the programme, has – thus far – used 9.9% less electricity in 2008 than it did in 2004. Similarly, in UCD, we find that the Newman Building has posted a 4.7% decrease in electricity consumption for this year, compared to the same period in 2007.  

At this time of year, from November to February, college faces expensive electricity costs, and personal responsibility will play more of a role than ever in the coming months to ensure that, as users of the buildings, we keep costs even proportionally lower. We are the ones who benefit most from the additional PCs, more advanced research equipment and increased opening hours of buildings such as the BLU complex on Sundays, and thus, we can help reduce energy costs by working with low cost energy initiatives on campus, not to mention on a wider scale.