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The University of St Andrews has long aspired to become the UK’s first carbon-neutral university for energy consumption. Its recent development of the Guardbridge Energy Centre at the newly-named “Eden Campus” plans to bring it one step closer to this elusive goal. Officially commissioned by Sally Mapstone on 6 December, the centre will generate “clean energy” using a biomass facility that burns sustainably sourced trees from local forests. A biomass boiler will then produce hot water, which will be pumped underground from Guardbridge to St Andrews.

The £25 million project will create more than 225 jobs at the new Eden Campus in Guardbridge, a big boost for employment in Fife. Its viability and promise are evidenced in its financial backing. St Andrews secured an £11 million loan from the Scottish Partnership for Regeneration in Urban Centres (SPRUCE) Fund and £10 million from the Scottish Funding Council. The University will only have to contribute £4 million. Quite tellingly, it then went on to win the prestigious Sustainable Development Award at the Scottish Green Energy Awards in December of 2016; a major national prize. This is a project with great promise.

The University’s ambitious carbon neutral goal will be supplemented with other projects, namely the Kenly wind farm. Just south of St Andrews, the small wind farm is currently in development, with plans to feed its output directly into the University grid. With six turbines and a generating capacity of 12 megawatts, it is hoped that the plant will save St Andrews around 19,000 tonnes of emissions a year. This, in conjunction with improvements to existing university buildings to reduce their energy demand, is said to put St Andrews on track to meeting its environmental goal.

So what does the Guardbridge Energy Centre hope to achieve?

One of the largest biomass and district heating schemes in Scotland, the centre has a carbon-savings potential of at least 6,000 tonnes a year. A commercial biomass boiler will burn virgin roundwood trees, sustainably sourced from local forests. Water will then be heated and pumped underground through 6km of insulated pipes, beneath roads and across a bridge over the River Eden. This will then be used to heat laboratories and 17 building complexes throughout North Haugh.

Biomass plants can have the lowest installation costs of all renewable energy technologies, are carbon neutral, and result in cheaper energy for residents. But how green is biomass energy? Whilst technically true, the term “carbon-neutral” can be deceptive. The only carbon released during burning will be that captured by the plant during its lifetime, with no new carbon generated in the process. This is therefore technically a carbon-neutral form of energy production and is certainly preferable to more “dirty” energy sources, such as oil and gas. As long as regrowth of organic materials is possible in an effective timeframe, this process will remain sustainable.

Use of biomass energy is certainly becoming more widespread across Scotland, yet it remains small in scale. A 2007 report concluded that wood fuel exceeded hydroelectric and wind as the largest potential source of renewable energy in Scotland. Scotland’s forests, which make up 60 per cent of the UK’s forestry resource base, were once forecast to become a major energy source.

However, a 2011 Forestry Commission and Scottish government follow-up report concluded that “there is no capacity to support further large scale electricity generation biomass plants from the domestic wood fibre resource.”

A plan to build a 200 megawatt biomass plant in Edinburgh was withdrawn by Forth Energy in 2012. Wind, wave, and tide make up more than 80 per cent of Scotland’s renewable energy potential, and release no carbon. These all seem a more obvious renewable choice for Scotland.

Yet given the availability of biomass and wind resources near St Andrews, this is an innovative energy solution that avoids hefty travel expenses and emissions.

In 2015, Scotland generated 59 per cent of its energy production through renewable resources, far exceeding its goal of 50 per cent. Moving forward, the Scottish Government’s energy plan calls for 100 per cent of electricity consumption to be generated through renewable sources by 2020. In light of this, the University’s goal of carbon neutrality in energy consumption is in line with the current Scottish trends. The new Guardbridge Centre is “an important milestone on our journey to becoming the first university to be carbon neutral for our energy usage,” said Professor Mapstone.

The benefits of the centre are not only environmental. It promises enormous community benefits for Guardbridge and Fife. “We believe the diverse range of potential uses at Guardbridge has the capacity to re-establish this huge site as a key economic centre in Fife,” said University Quaestor and Factor Derek Watson. It is hoped that bringing the site back to use will revitalise the Guardbridge area, creating more highly skilled and better-paid jobs, and ensuring that investment is spent locally to benefit the region. This will then encourage economic activity across Scotland whilst ensuring a sustainable legacy for future generations.

The Eden Campus provides opportunities for local start-ups, specifically those involved in energy systems, maintenance, and engineering. The University also proposes to develop ongoing industrial, storage, distribution, and office spaces; with research and development activity associated with the University of St Andrews’ Sustainable Power and Research Campus (SPARC). The new energy centre will also expand St Andrews’ existing Apprenticeship programme within the Estates Department, further boosting employment.

Its receipt of such a major national award, the impressive feat of engineering itself, and commitment to investing locally all speak highly of St Andrews’ environmental and sustainability goals. The innovative and practical use of local resources will put it in good stead for achieving its goal of carbon neutrality. This is certainly not the only solution, and looking forward, perhaps the University will look to invest in cleaner energy sources given the abundance of natural resources on our doorstep.

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