The site is expected to generate a significant amount of renewable energy from biomass when it is completed in 2016, helping the University reach its goal of becoming carbon neutral.
With energy prices expected to rise significantly over the next decade and beyond, the University of St Andrews Estates team have taken the initiative to address looming environmental and energy challenges through a very ambitious renewable energy plan. A core part of this plan is the recently acquired Guardbridge site, formerly owned by Curtis Fine Papers. The University purchased the site in 2010 for £2.5 million after a lengthy period of investigation and research on potential energy reduction and renewable energy options. The University has been researching these options since 2006.
The North Haugh buildings are the largest consumers of energy of all the University’s properties. Between 2005 and 2006, the University hired consultants to examine options to reduce their energy consumption. After careful examination, the University was able to find ways to reduce energy usage, but the consultants advised that a single biomass plant connected to all the buildings in the North Haugh would help to address the University’s appetite for energy. The North Haugh property is very expensive and planning approval can be very slow so the University decided to look outside of the immediate area for an energy solution.
In 2008, when Curtis Fine Papers closed their Guardbridge site because it was not profitable, the University realised it would be the right place to create a complete energy centre to heat the North Haugh.
At its peak decades ago, the site had approximately 800 people working there along with three boilers producing 66 megawatts of steam. At various times, coal, gas and oil have been used as energy for paper production. Estates’ vision for the site and the University’s overall sustainability mission is to be one hundred percent carbon neutral, or as close to that goal as possible, by 2016. The University has made it a core part of its teachings and mission to profess sustainability: “When we achieve carbon neutral, the reputation of the University’s research and teaching will be enhanced,” David Stutchfield, the University’s energy officer, said.
Currently, the University purchases most of its fuel to heat buildings from a French oil and gas company. Stutchfield emphasised that it is very difficult to control prices when the University cannot create its own energy. Therefore producing hot water to heat buildings would significantly reduce the University’s volatile utility prices.
The Guardbridge site is spread out over 77 buildings in a very industrial setting, perfect for large boilers to boil hot water for heating the North Haugh. The boilers themselves are heated by burning woodchips. The site is divided into three zones. The southern portion is designated parkland and home to a wide variety of birds. The northern part is reclaimed land from an estuary bordering the site. For the biomass energy centre to be fully operational, a pipeline for hot water will be installed alongside the bike path from the Guardbridge site to extend the four miles to the North Haugh. The transformation of the site and construction of the pipeline will mean, “Short term pain for long term gain,” in the words of Dr. Roddy Yarr, University Estates Environment and Energy Manager.
The day I toured the site, noise surveys were being conducted with the wood chipper in full use. Additionally, prior to construction, Estates will be carrying out an environmental impact assessment, or EIA. The University’s EIA will include tests on water quality, noise, emissions, landscape and visual impacts, among other factors. Estates hope to employ some local people in order to conduct surveys and their EIA for the site.
The wood being chipped on the site will be transported from within an area of 50 kilometres around Guardbridge. Yarr and Stutchfield emphasised the role that the biomass centre’s demand for wood could play for local farmers. They remarked that farmers often see their woodland as a liability and they will quickly realise that with St Andrews’ Guardbridge biomass centre, they will have a longterm consumer for their wood and can replant trees to create a sustainable asset, as Yarr put it, to sustain a ‘virtuous cycle’. This is “a new supply chain built for them, and that’s fantastic.” Furthermore, the longterm contracts that the University is willing to sign with farmers will help them to attain a regular and additional source of income to hedge against the volatility of crop production.
The economic benefits of the centre will remain local and it will allow the University to support the local population while obtaining the energy demands it needs to heat its buildings. “We’re not shipping it in from Azerbaijan and paying some geezer over there, it’s all local.”
Additionally, the site is expected to have many uses beyond energy production. The University is in talks with ‘like-minded organisations’ to have companies establish offices or conduct research on the site in the renewable energy and sustainability fields. Some examples of types of companies being targeted include those related to energy storage and research, geothermal research, and data storage. Some of the space may also be used for the University’s own data operation. One of the buildings on site is already in use by Eden Brewery.[pullquote]When we acheive carbon neutral, the reputation of the University’s research and teaching will be enhanced.[/pullquote]
Furthermore, library storage and space for the University’s Schools of Chemistry and Physics to conduct research or have additional offices are also being considered. The potential for a variety of facility uses is due to the large number of empty buildings on the site. Yarr explained, “We don’t want to demolish too many buildings, we try to re-use as much as we can.”
Estates also plans to utilise the roofs of many buildings for solar panels and there is the potential for opportunities including anaerobic digestion facilities for biodegradable waste or sewage treatment. There may also be analysis for the feasibility of electricity generation in the future.
The University is in the process of raising £25 million for the project.
In response to the question of whether subsidies played a major role in the initiation of the project, Yarr said the utility cost subsidy was only one pence and set to go up to two this year per kilowatt hour. So while this may have had some influence on the impetus to launch the project, the price and volatility of energy were the primary factors in addition to the desire to have the University be carbon neutral and thus ‘practice what they preach’.
In reflection of the entire project, Yarr remarked that the University is being “clear, open and transparent. There’s nothing to hide here. We’re keeping it real, keeping it simple.” He hopes that the centre will serve as a model in sustainability for other universities. It will also serve to compliment the University’s recently approved Kenly Windfarm that is expected to create 12 megawatts of power for the North Haugh.
However, there are some challenges that lie ahead. Sustainability investment and the goal of becoming carbon neutral is “not on the agenda in everybody’s mind,” Yarr added. He continued, “It’s not a done deal. The University has to buy into the vision at every level.”
Photos: Amy Thompson