February 11, 2020

Transformational District Energy Upgrade – Dramatic Sustainability Outcomes

The University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières (UQTR) was recognized by ASHRAE for a campus-wide upgrade of its energy distribution system.

A cost-effective strategy resulted in a dramatic 53% reduction in GHG emissions. Enhancing building energy performance paved the way for converting existing assets into a highly efficient district energy system. The network is now fully compatible with heat recovery technologies and clean electricity sources.

Reaching Next-Level Performance

UQTR welcomes 14,500 students a year. Located halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, the university contends with extreme climates, including six months of snowfall annually and extended periods of intense cold.

The university has long been committed to sustainability and operational efficiency. Its facilities and operations team had already maximized the existing systems’ performance by fine-tuning control sequences. The limiting factor? The systems themselves.

Reaching next-level efficiency required rethinking the university’s entire district energy system. However, how could energy be distributed more efficiently across a sprawling campus with 15 pavilions?

UQTR had the ambition and recognized the need for design and implementation support. “A project of this size and this complexity,” explained Luc Biron, UQTR’s Director of Equipment Services, “would have been impossible for us to accomplish with our in-house resources alone.”

A Clear Focus on Outcomes

UQTR tendered an outcome-based RFP to select a project partner. Rather than specify equipment (the “how”), the university specified outcomes (the “what”) that would best support their strategic goals:

  • A greener campus with dramatically lower GHG emissions
  • Improved comfort for students and staff
  • Using the existing infrastructure and making it compatible with clean and economical technologies
  • Systems that are much less expensive to operate and easier to maintain
  • Implementation without interrupting the university’s day-to-day activities

UQTR’s team partnered with Ecosystem, an integrated engineering and construction firm with the expertise to deliver their desired objectives. The two teams collaborated through the entire process: “The key to the project’s success was how our university’s team was consulted for recommendations and fully included in decision-making,” maintained Luc Biron.

District Energy Upgrade – Building-Level Strategy

When upgrading UQTR’s campus-wide energy distribution system, where was the best place to start? Interestingly, with the individual buildings.

Individual buildings are often overlooked in projects that are focused on the distribution network. However, for the network to operate at peak performance, it is critical that individual buildings are retrofitted to be compatible with a more efficient district energy system.

For UQTR, the key to achieving dramatic results was converting its high-temperature district heating loop to a much lower-temperature loop. The conversion was only possible after the buildings themselves were upgraded to draw less energy from the district system. Upgrades focused on enhancing the buildings’ efficiency and installing local systems for the rare high-temperature needs like humidification. These upgrades set the stage for a remarkably efficient and cost-effective district energy system. This investment in building-level infrastructure will benefit the university for decades to come.

Low Temperature, High Efficiency

The advantages of converting UQTR’s district heating loop to a lower temperature were threefold:

  • Less energy is required to supply a lower-temperature system and less heat is lost as it is distributed across the campus.
  • Heat pumps are efficient only on lower-temperature systems – the lower the better. With heat recovery technologies in place, the university’s heating is now partially supplied by waste heat extracted from the cooling system.
  • Electrifying the heating became cost-effective with the addition of heat pumps, enabling the university to incorporate clean electricity sources, specifically hydroelectricity, reducing the campus’ GHG emissions.

For greater efficiency, certain buildings were connected to the district heating loop in series: a building with higher temperature heating needs is supplied first, which then feeds into a building with lower temperature heating needs. This results in a lower return temperature, which boosts the performance of the new heat pump.

New high-efficiency boilers in the central plant were sized to meet the campus’ reduced baseload

This whole-campus upgrade was designed to be simpler to operate and maintain. Some of UQTR’s cooling systems, for example, were previously decentralized across the university until a unified cooling system was created so heat could be recovered from most of the campus using a single 200-ton heat pump. These centralized systems, operated from a single point with less equipment to maintain, also generate greater savings.

Resilient Universities that Walk the Talk

UQTR has joined other higher education institutions – including the historic campus at Brown University – in transitioning to a low-carbon campus through a district energy upgrade. The newly electrified district system is highly efficient and future-proofed for emerging cleantech.

While leading the way forward, UQTR is also demonstrating that low-temperature district heating loops are viable in any climate. During hot, humid summers and extremely cold winters, if it works at UQTR, it can work almost anywhere.

UQTR is now one of the most efficient universities in the province of Quebec. This district energy upgrade reduced GHG emissions by an impressive 53%, while saving the university 23% on energy costs.


Congratulations to UQTR for receiving two awards for this project:

  • 2020 ASHRAE Technology Award Honorable Mention – Educational Facilities, Existing Building
  • 2018 AEE Institutional Energy Management Award – Canada Region