August 15, 2017

Toward Net-Zero Universities

How Steam to Hot Water Conversion and Other Transformational Changes Lead the Way.

University campuses across North America are pursuing ambitious plans for sustainable energy supply, motivated by a desire not just to lower costs but also to achieve meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. After capturing “low-hanging fruit,” such as lighting upgrades, many are seeking deeper, transformational energy retrofits, including steam to hot water conversion, electrification of heating, heat recovery technologies, and renewables. These changes were the subject of a roundtable discussion hosted by Ecosystem Energy Services at the APPA conference in San Francisco this July.

Moderator JP Drouin, design engineer at Ecosystem (and AEE’s 2016 Young Engineer of the Year), led a dynamic conversation among representatives from York University and McGill University in Canada and Stanford University and UC Davis in the US – four campuses in different locations, with different climates and energy regimes, and at different stages of their campus energy master plans. Those campuses further along in their energy transformation shared lessons learned, while those in the early stages shared tips with colleagues in the audience on getting started. To set the foundation for transformational changes, existing steam systems are often the biggest hurdle, agreed the participants. Universities that are serious about taking meaningful steps need to recognize that steam to hot water (STHW) conversion is an essential first stage in their energy transformation.

A Funding Puzzle: York University

Securing funding is a familiar issue at York University in Toronto. “We have reduced energy consumption even as the campus has grown, and we’ve managed to tackle the low-hanging fruit,” said Richard Francki, Assistant VP, Campus Services and Business Operations, at York University. “If we’re going to get serious about greenhouse gas reduction, we’re going to have to do something more dramatic. That is what is bringing us to contemplate a shift of this magnitude.” York is now working on assembling the financing for a major campus transformation.

Ontario’s cap and trade program, in which some universities are mandatory participants, would at first glance seem a good source of funding for an essential energy savings initiative. However, the program’s short-term spending requirements are not matched to what is essentially a longer-term project. “STHW has a five- to eight-year implementation timeline, requiring an equally long-term financial commitment. So we are assessing whether we can frame the STHW project to make it compatible with goverment program requirements,” Francki commented.

For York, STHW conversion will also mean a change in fuel sources. “As we look at converting from steam to hot water, the reality is that the solutions are electric. Whether it is heat recovery, heat pumps, or electric boilers, you are looking at converting from natural gas to electricity,” said Francki.

If we’re going to get serious about greenhouse gas reduction, we’re going to have to do something more dramatic.
That is what is bringing us to contemplate a shift of this magnitude.

– Richard Francki, Assistant VP, Campus Services and Business Operations, York University

The Energy Pioneer: Stanford University

Stanford University had to win over skeptics in 2009, said Fahmida Ahmed, Director, Office of Sustainability, at Stanford. “When we showed our Board of Trustees this huge opportunity in 2009, nobody believed us. Then we spent two years working with consulting firms, reverifying our math, and asking ourselves, ‘Are we crazy or do we really have this opportunity?’”

Stanford’s transformation grew out of a key realization. “What it comes down to is that the answer is on the supply side. We had to transform where our energy was coming from and make it an electricity-based platform so we can go the renewable route as much as we want, and set it up on an open and flexible platform not tied to fossil fuels,” said Ahmed. In conjunction with a STHW conversion, the university retired its CHP facility, built in the 1980s and at the end of its useful life; today the campus has a heat recovery system that provides 88 percent of the annual heating demand, relegating gas-fired boilers to mere back-up.

Stanford University: Overall conversion of thermal system

Moving to an electrically powered system achieved some major results: reducing campus greenhouse gas emissions by 68%; reducing campus drinking water use by an additional 15%, very meaningful in a state that suffers from drought; saving $450 million over Business As Usual over the next 35 years; and supplying 65% of the campus’ electricity from renewable sources.

Making the Transformation: University of California, Davis

STHW conversion and heat recovery are also appealing to UC Davis. “We now have district energy heating and cooling systems that are completely separate. If we had a central heat recovery chiller, we could do 60 percent of our heating load on campus,” said Joshua Morejohn, Director, Facilities Management, Energy and Engineering, at UC Davis.

As a member of the extensive University of California (UC) system, UC Davis needs to achieve some ambitious system-wide sustainability goals: to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, despite an ever-growing campus, and to attain carbon neutrality by 2025.

UC Davis is currently evaluating its path forward, said Morejohn. “We’re in a phase now, evaluating a hot water distribution system vs distributed water source heat pumps tied into our chilled water system, and we will decide in the next few months.” But the transformation is certainly coming. “We’re throwing away $3-5 million a year on heating the grass with our old steam pipes. That’s hard to argue with.”

UC Davis: heat recovery potential

Morejohn explained that one key realization was a main driver for UC Davis’ energy transformation. “The reality is that we don’t need 350oF for heating buildings. You’re making really high-grade heat, and you’re tied to natural gas to do that. With hot water, you can make low-grade heat, and it opens up the world to other low-grade sources that you can’t use with steam.”

There’s only one way to make steam, but there are many ways to make hot water,
and this is what opens all the doors toward sustainable solutions.

– Joshua Morejohn, Director, Facilities Management, Energy and Engineering, UC Davis

A Phased Approach: McGill University

McGill University in Montreal is taking a phased approach to its campus energy transformation. “We are aligning our energy conservation plan with our deferred maintenance plan, creating a synergy. It’s about finding that perfect timing when the money is available,” said Denis Mondou, Director, Utilities and Energy Management, at McGill University.

McGill piloted STHW conversion on a satellite campus in Montreal. “All proposals then suggested decentralization, but decentralization was not very appealing because it did not prepare the groundwork for more innovative solutions, and it was not helping with system ability or with reducing emissions,” said Mondou. “We realized we had to maintain district heat but not with steam – with hot water.”

McGill University: phasing for implementation of heat recovery networks

That C$8.5 million project realized $400,000 in annual savings, encouraging the university to implement a broader project on its main campus, targeting a 27 percent reduction in energy intensity and a 55 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

“To do it all at once would be very difficult,” Mondou admitted. “That’s where a phased approach comes in. We will have finished four of five planned phases by 2021, combining load reduction initiatives with the STHW conversion. By then we will have a better understanding of where the new power plant should be, having trimmed the load everywhere.” Mondou also emphasized the need for engagement with facilities staff on campus not only to learn from their experience but also to earn their buy-in.

The session ended with a lively Q&A from the audience, a clear sign that this dialogue is only just beginning. Ecosystem looks forward to bringing more universities together as they think about transformational energy initiatives.

We realized we had to maintain district heat but not with steam – with hot water.

– Denis Mondou, Director, Utilities and Energy Management, McGill University

The Panel

Joshua Morejohn, PE, CEM,
Director, Facilities Management Energy Engineering, UC Davis

Fahmida Ahmed,
Director, Office of Sustainability,
Stanford University, California

Denis Mondou, ing. MBA, C.E.M,
Director, Utilities and Energy Management and Macdonald Campus Operations,
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec

Richard Francki,
Assistant Vice President, Campus Services and Business Operations,
York University, Toronto, Ontario

JP Drouin,
Moderator & Project Engineer,
Ecosystem

Watch the entire session here


Attention! Call for Ideas

Let’s continue this discussion. Ecosystem is creating a platform to bring together those who are interested in mapping out real technical solutions to bring our campuses to net-zero.

Please contact JP Drouin for more information: jpdrouin@ecosystem-energy.com


Ecosystem Energy Services is at the forefront of energy innovation. In 2003, we were the first company to design and implement a steam to hot water conversion in a Quebec hospital. Today, we specialize in performing complex conversions in sensitive and occupied environments, including college campuses in the US and Canada.