University
Green Office employee Dick Jager on the roof of the UB. Photo by Reyer Boxem

Solar panels alone aren’t enough

The energy crisis is hitting the UG hard

Green Office employee Dick Jager on the roof of the UB. Photo by Reyer Boxem
In barely three years, the university’s energy costs have tripled. Intervention teams from the Green Office have been tasked with turning the tide, but in the meantime, the UG didn’t even manage to use less heat during the pandemic.
26 April om 16:55 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 28 April 2022
om 12:22 uur.
April 26 at 16:55 PM.
Last modified on April 28, 2022
at 12:22 PM.

Door Christien Boomsma

26 April om 16:55 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 28 April 2022
om 12:22 uur.

By Christien Boomsma

April 26 at 16:55 PM.
Last modified on April 28, 2022
at 12:22 PM.

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio »

Background coordinator and science editor
Full bio »

The UG will be paying 22 million euros in energy costs this year. This money will pay for a little over 50 million kilowatt hours of electricity and nearly 5 million cubic metres in gas.

That’s a lot, said the people at the Services Department responsible for purchasing energy for the university. After all, the year before, the UG paid approximately 14 million euros for roughly the same amount of energy. And a year before that, it was 8 million. 

‘When we first bought it, we were upset about how expensive it was’, says Kor Smit with the Services Department. ‘But looking back, we were lucky.’ Because the price just kept on going up. ‘We might end up paying something like 35 million.’

What happened in 2017?

Until 2017, energy prices were rising steadily. But that year sees a slow but visible curtailment. What happened?

After consulting several annual reports, Dick Jager suspects it’s an accumulation of actions that are finally paying off. The university had been investing in heat pumps, solar panels, more efficient energy consumption, and motion sensors for the lights for several years. ‘In and of themselves, those actions weren’t enough to explain the difference, but together, they were’, he says.

The decrease in energy consumption at the UG is continuing. However, it’s not going fast enough to reach the desired goal of a 27-percent energy reduction in 2050 compared to 2005.

In fact, it’s uncertain whether the price will remain stable at all over the next year. The energy market, which was relatively stable for years, now resembles the stock market. Prices that used to stay the same for weeks, now change every fifteen minutes. The effects are devastating.

Profit warning

That is why university board president Jouke de Vries issued a ‘profit warning’ a few weeks ago. Because of the current price increase, the board of directors needs to take a good look at the construction products on the schedule for the next few years, he said. 

For years, the university paid approximately 50 cents for a cubic metre of gas. As a bulk consumer, it pays less than private consumers, who are paying nearly three euros per cubic metre these days. But even now, the UG is paying 1.50. 

We might end up paying something like 35 million in energy costs

At the same time, the UG’s energy consumption has only marginally decreased, in spite of the heat storage facilities created at the Zernike campus and the UB: facilities that use geothermal energy to heat buildings in winter and cool them in summer. And that’s in spite of the fact that a total of 11,000 square metres of solar panels have been installed on every available university roof. 

There are plans to expand the use of the existing heat storage facilities. New buildings will be constructed as sustainably as possible: the new Feringa Building will not use any natural gases, will have 900 square metres of solar panels, and two heat storage facilities to meet its energy needs.

Pandemic

However, it will take years before investments like these actually pay off. What’s even more concerning: even during the pandemic, the university barely managed to save energy. Adjusted to the outside temperature, the UG used 3.2 million cubic metres of gas in 2011. In 2019, that increased to 4.5 million cubic metres. During the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, It was 4.4 and 4.7 million cubic metres respectively.

Looking at the use per square metre – after all, the UG has expanded over the course of those ten years – the UG as a whole used 8 cubic metres in 2011. In 2019 and 2020, the consumption was 10.5 and 10.6 cubic metres respectively, and 11.2 cubic metres in 2021.

‘The heat was actually on in the buildings during the pandemic. That’s ridiculous!’, says Dick Jager with the Green Office. ‘We also heated buildings while the windows were open for six months.’

The university’s electricity consumption isn’t much more encouraging: in 2011, the UG used 52 million kilowatt hours. In 2019, it used 56 million, and 50 million in 2021. In other words: during the years the buildings were barely used, we only used 10 percent less electricity.

The consumption per square metre presents the same picture: in 2011, the uni used 127 kilowatt hours per square metre, in 2019, it was 130, and in 2020, 118. The only thing that clearly went down during the pandemic was the water consumption, as far fewer toilets were flushed. 

Empty buildings

Everyone, including the board of directors, the policymakers, and the Green Office, had expected that the empty buildings would lead to lower energy costs. ‘You’d think that if only 20 percent of people are in the building, you’d only use 20 percent of heating’, says Jager. ‘But that simply wasn’t the case.’

So what happened?

‘While there was only a handful of people in the buildings, we did heat them in their entirety’, Jager explains. 

The energy consumption of laboratories is insane

Besides, a nearly empty building costs more to heat than a full building. People generate body heat, whirring computers heat the air. When all that disappears, it actually takes more energy to heat up the same square footage. 

Heating the UG buildings is also a centrally managed affair. The faculties decide when a building is open and how high the thermostat is allowed to go. In the months that the buildings went unused or barely used and staff turned up the heat in their home offices, these settings were hardly ever changed. 

As everyone is now fully aware, that was a bad idea. This includes the faculty boards, who have to foot the bills themselves. 

Energy guzzler

Take the Faculty of Science and Engineering, for example. This faculty uses half of all the gas the university consumes, 2.6 million cubic metres, and nearly 23 million kilowatt hours in electricity. But the Linneausborg and the Bernoulliborg use heat storage facilities and the Energy Academy is free of gas. ‘But the energy consumption of laboratories is insane’, says Jager. ‘The labs’ entire volume gets sucked out eight times an hour and then pumped full of air again.’

CIT: a lot of energy, but little gas

It won’t come as a surprise that computers use quite a lot of energy. The only reason the UG’s computer centre isn’t at the bottom of the list is because it uses very little gas: only 5.25 cubic metres per square metre. That’s partially because they use a heat pump, but Dick Jager thinks there’s another reason. ‘You must remember that computers also generate a lot of heat. That’s probably the biggest reason they use so little gas.’

FSE also owns ‘problem child’ Nijenborgh 4, the biggest energy consumer the UG has by far. It’s gas-heated and hopelessly outdated. The windows are cracked or leaky because of rust in the steel tracks, but they can’t be replaced because the caulk in the tracks contains asbestos. The building was scheduled to be demolished once the Feringa Building was done, but that’s probably not happening because the faculty is hard up for room. 

But solutions aren’t always easy to come by. Managing director Esther Marije Klop is hard at work to find green alternatives. ‘I thought lowering the thermostat to 19 degrees everywhere was a great idea’, she says. But then she found out that this wouldn’t lead to any results in buildings like the Linneausborg. 

‘Laboratory buildings actually need more cooling than they need heating, since research equipment and machinery produce heat. That leads to a heat surplus, and it actually costs more energy to get rid of that heat. Lowering the thermostat in buildings like that can actually lead to an opposite effect in terms of energy consumption.’

Monuments

The Centre for Information Technology (CIT) consumes the most energy per square metre. Those computers don’t power themselves. Over the past year, the CIT used 889 kilowatt hours of power per square metre. That’s 4.6 times as much as runner-up FSE.

Then there are the buildings in the city centre, which are often poorly insulated and difficult to renovate due to their status as monuments. Think of the University Museum, the buildings in the Oude Boteringestraat, or the Academy building. They all have an energy rating of G. 

People don’t take action until it affects them financially

But it’s clearly not impossible: take Campus Fryslân, in the monumental old stock exchange building in Leeuwarden. The building, which stems from 1880, was thoroughly renovated and is now the most energy-efficient building the university has, even more efficient than the Energy Academy. ‘It blew all theories that you can’t make old buildings sustainable out of the water’, says Jager. 

It’s just that the end-users have very little say in the insulation of their building, or the way the power supply is taken care of. They have to wait until structural solutions, such as insulation or more buildings getting connected to the heat storage facilities, have been put into effect.

Motivation

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any quick wins to be had, Jager emphasises. Now that things are at their worst, there’s finally sufficient motivation to do something. ‘People don’t take action until it affects them financially. We might be intrinsically interested in sustainability, but our most intrinsic interest is money’, says Jager. 

Over the next few months, he and his colleagues will be visiting faculties and service departments. He’s already visited the Faculty of Philosophy, when managing director Anke Schuster-Koster asked for advice on how to make the faculty more sustainable. ‘They came up with a whole host of ideas’, says Schuster-Koster enthusiastically. He also recently paid a visit to the faculties of arts and law, which are now discussing the preliminary advice he gave them.

Electricity, water & gas at the UG

Source: Green Office UG

The biggest wins, Smit and Jager agree, are in the buildings’ opening hours. Over the past few years, these have expanded for most UG properties. But shutting down a building over the weekend means you’d save on heating for two whole days, which could result in saving 20 to 30 percent in heating costs. ‘That saves so much money. No amount of glazing can beat that’, says Smit. 

Another thing to consider is whether buildings should be fully heated at all times. ‘They could also decide to keep buildings open until 11 p.m., but have people wear an extra sweater.’

This measure was implemented at the philosophy faculty last month. Until recently, this faculty’s buildings were completely heated until 11 p.m. and on the weekend. Now, they’re only heated until 7 p.m., and heating is shut off completely on the weekend. ‘The first results show that we don’t need to heat the building to maintain the temperature at night’, says Schuster-Koster. Similar measures are currently being explored at the faculties of arts and law.

Efficient use of space

The contradictions of the University College

The University College Groningen uses nearly 15 cubic metres of gas per square metre. Only the Faculty of Science and Engineering uses more. However, the UCG also uses the least electricity: 20 kilowatt hours per square meter.

Kor Smit thinks the building’s high gas usage is due to its opening hours. It’s an old, single-glazed building that is open to students a lot. He also knows why its electricity consumption is so low: ‘Modern buildings all have ventilation systems’, he says, ‘which cool the building in the summer. But the UCG is an old building where people ventilate by opening a window. In the summer, it’s just warm.’

Another thing to consider: should meetings and classes always take place at their respective faculties? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to compartmentalise the lack of room? ‘We’re used to doing it this way and it’s nice if people don’t have to travel all that far, but only around 60 percent of the room we have is in continuous use. Instead of putting up new buildings, we should make more efficient use of the room we have’, says Jager. That would also save money, since those rooms are already being heated anyway.

Because people are working from home, offices are also less populated. This could be a good thing, if it’s being utilised well. ‘Make sure that when people are in the office, everyone’s in the office’, says Smit. ‘And turn off the heating if you’re not going to be in the office.’

Make sure that when people are in the office, everyone’s in the office

Then there are the small things that can nevertheless add up to make a difference, such as turning off your computer instead of leaving it in sleep mode. If your building allows it, turn down the thermostat when you leave the building or during the holidays. Switch off the lights at the end of the day. The philosophy faculty is currently exploring the option to replace light switches with sensors. They’re also working on the option to insulate the attic of the old building, to save energy. 

What’s especially important, says Smit, is that people don’t hide behind fallacies like ‘our building is so poorly insulated’. ‘That’s just covering your own ass’, he says. ‘Sure, the quality of the building impacts things, but not that much.’

Ultimately, Jager thinks, some faculties will be able to significantly curtail their energy consumption by implementing these measures. But that requires a cultural shift. And while it might be frustrating that it’s taken enormous price increases and a war in Ukraine to change people’s minds, but the time is now. 

‘You have to take the opportunities as they come’, says Smit. ‘People were much more dismissive at first. But now everyone’s aware that we need better insulation and that we need to turn down the heat a little. That’s a positive development for everyone who’s dealing with the sustainability efforts.’

What about UKrant?

Unfortunately, UKrant is not particularly energy efficient. The monumental property at the Oude Kijk in ‘t Jatstraat 28 has a G energy rating and a 1.83 energy index. Not the worst when compared to Nijenborgh’s 3.09, but not great, either.

The editorial offices use a lot of gas, and we were reprimanded for it in 2018. An investigation using infrared sensors showed that a lot of heat was escaping through the windows. But, in our defence, we’d been complaining for years about a thermostat that didn’t care one bit about the actual temperature of the room, which was caused by the pipes of the neighbouring Harmonie complex. The ventilation in the property also doesn’t work very well, which meant we had to open windows to get enough oxygen into the office.

A new thermostat that only turns on when there are actually people in the office was installed in 2021, which led to improvement. But the windows are still single glazed and the doors and windows in the monumental property still don’t close properly.

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