Forward-thinking offers a perspective in times of gas crisis
TU/e Real Estate has been working on gas-free heating of the buildings for 20 years and is steadily working towards soon connecting as many locations as possible to the special heat and cold storage system (aquifer thermal energy storage or ATES).
Gas prices are skyrocketing. Even on the TU/e campus, much of which is already off of the gas, the costs are mounting. More buildings will soon be going off of the gas at an accelerated pace. But if everything is soon to be running on electricity, will there be enough room for it all on the Brabant energy grid? These are questions that energy management advisor Thijs Meulen is considering for a campus which is in the midst of a transformation.
Back in 2002, TU/e literally laid the foundation for a gasless future. The heat and cold storage system (better known as an aquifer thermal energy storage or ATES), located under the campus, has 32 wells that can supply buildings with heat, cold or a mix thereof via two rings. When constructed, this system was unique in the Netherlands; only the High Tech Campus Eindhoven has since installed a system that works on the same principle.
The fact that you can provide heating and cooling at the same time with this system makes it suitable for all types of buildings at TU/e. The goal is therefore to connect the entire campus to the ATES. “We have enough capacity to do that,” Meulen says. “We can theoretically bring as much as 2000 cubic meters of water to our buildings per hour.”
“In the summer, we use around 1250 cubic meters for buildings that are already connected. The reason for this is that the system has to work harder in the summer than in the winter [because the campus mainly requires cooling, which costs more energy - ed.]. So, we have enough reserve capacity to connect additional buildings, including new and existing labs, without any problems.” With 32 sources, there is even more capacity available than was originally thought. This is mainly because the new buildings are so well insulated.
“So, we have enough reserve capacity to connect additional buildings, including new and existing labs, without any problems.”
- Thijs Meulen, energy management advisor TU/e
In the current situation, 19 buildings are connected to ATES. Four of them are already fully gasless: Atlas, Flux, Metaforum and Ceres. “Neuron, Qubit and Gemini will also be gasless. And, we have plans to take the Auditorium, Cascade and Helix off of the gas earlier than was planned due to the current situation in the energy market.”
This is because even though so many buildings are already off of the gas, the cost of the gas that is still being used on campus (including in third-party buildings) has already turned out to be 12 times higher than was budgeted for in the previous quarter.
The reason for this is that TU/e quit Russian energy supplier Gazprom on October 1 following European sanctions. Via a tendering process, the university entered into a new contract with GreenChoice. As a result, the price for a cubic meter of gas has shot up.
TU/e Real Estate has set itself the goal of purchasing below the average gas price by 2023. In regard to purchasing, the year has been split into several parts, allowing Meulen to spread the risk. On the days when he can purchase gas, he must respond to the proposed price within ten minutes.
“I then sit ready at 10:30 to immediately settle a good price according to the agreed methodology. If the cost per cubic meter is favorable, I can also choose to purchase more parts rather than just one part of the whole. If, later in the year, another price is above the average gas price, I can skip it.”
Prices fluctuate enormously. “For example, on September 13, 2022, gas cost 1.72 euros per cubic meter. Two days later, the price rose to 2.41 euros,” Meulen explains. With a consumption of 2.6 million cubic meters of gas per year (including third parties on campus), 1.80 euros versus 2.40 euros makes quite the difference. Meulen therefore hopes for support from the government as the price cap announced by the Hague does not apply to universities.
“There is currently no scheme that applies to us.”
- Thijs Meulen, energy management advisor TU/e
So, it should come as no surprise that the university now wants to get off of the gas extra fast. This is why the connection of the Auditorium and Helix to the ATES system has also been brought forward. But the price of electricity is also currently a lot higher than before because this is partially generated with gas.
“In May, we were able to lock in the price of electricity for the whole year. We did that because we saw that those prices were also going up enormously. We didn’t want to wait and see how things would go, so we were fortunately able to buy below the current market price.”
Electricity consumption on campus will begin to increase over the coming years. In addition to the new connections to the ATES, a lab building will be added, research will take place that requires more electricity, and more charging stations for electric cars will gradually be installed on campus, says Meulen.
A short time ago, it was questionable whether there would be enough room for this on the power grid. National grid operator TenneT finally managed to free up space. “We have now applied for an expansion from grid operator Enexis for double the capacity that we are currently using.”
At the same time, the university is trying to save money in every possible way – not only for financial reasons but also in the context of sustainability. “The climate agreement states that as a public institution, we have to emit 55% less CO2 by 2030. As it looks now, we are going to achieve that. If you include the COVID period, we have even already achieved it.” This CO2 reduction comes from a variety of sources.
Gas has consistent emissions of 1.79 kilograms of CO2 per cubic meter. Electricity has variable CO2 emissions, which are becoming more favorable as more and more renewable energy becomes available. It is currently calculated at 0.3 kilograms of CO2 per kWh. So, by switching from gas to electricity, you automatically reduce some of these emissions.
As the university will soon run entirely on electricity, emissions will continue to automatically decrease. “Because we are going off of the gas, we are able to grow in electricity use from 34,000 MWh to 40,000 MWh and still remain within that 55% CO2 reduction,” notes Meulen.
At the same time, the university also wants to consume less. Smart lighting can already make a big difference in this. “In Atlas, we have a base of 100 lux of artificial light. According to standards, you should normally have 500 lux in a workplace, but this is not necessary in this building because there is enough outside light coming in. By going from 500 to 100 lux, you save 80% on energy.” In addition, equipment is generally becoming more economical, Meulen adds. “Ventilation motors, for example. The difference from 10 years ago is very big, so you also save energy by putting in new motors.”
“Because we are going off of the gas, we are able to grow in electricity use.”
- Thijs Meulen, energy management advisor TU/e
New construction and renovations on campus also take this into account. For example, Neuron will have smart lighting using sensors. “This building will also be insulated according to new standards and glass will be placed in the roof for extra light.” However, it is not possible to make these kinds of changes to every building on campus.
The question then is whether it is worth preserving such buildings in the future. “Traverse is one such case. Traverse has an energy label of D, so there is still a lot to be gained there. By replacing the ventilation motors, we can reach a label of C, but if we want to continue to A, we will have to tackle the entire facade. The question is whether this building still fits into the real estate strategy. On that basis, we will subsequently look at whether it is economically feasible to renovate and make a building more sustainable.”
Economical swimming pool
The same issue arises for buildings now being used by Fontys but soon to return to the university. “These include buildings that are almost no longer usable by TU/e. We need to see what will happen with those, but another group within Real Estate is working on that.” Otherwise, enormous energy guzzlers are almost non-existent on campus.
“Just the sports center. The new section that is being built there is gas-free, but we still have to completely overhaul the rest of the building. There, too, we are looking at how we can already make preparations during the new construction in order to get the existing section off of the gas at a later stage as well. Although the swimming pool is one of the most economical pools in the Netherlands, we can also get rid of a lot of excess heat from the ATES there.”
Spectrum, Helix and Cyclotron also have high consumption. “Those three collectively account for half of the energy consumption on campus.” Why is that? “Helix, for example, has 500 fume cupboards, which require extraction to remove toxins. If the windows of those cupboards are left open, you blow out all of the conditioned air from the buildings.” This has a large influence on consumption on campus and, at the same time, is a factor which is very difficult to influence: people’s behavior.
Pilots were carried out in Helix to solve this problem, such as by making the cupboards close automatically. However, the issue with that was that it might be unsafe if a cupboard closes as someone walks by with bottles of toxic substances. This pilot therefore did not succeed. Currently, a joint project with the department is investigating, among other things, whether more energy-efficient fume cupboards are available that can be used within our buildings and our research.
In addition to getting off of the gas, using smart lighting, buying more economical equipment and trying to modify people’s behavior, there is another way to economize: generating our own renewable energy. Looking out over the campus, one notices that not all roofs have solar panels. This will soon change. In 2023, there will be new legislation stating that organizations that use a lot of energy – which includes TU/e – will have an energy-saving obligation. “All roofs on which solar panels can be installed with a period of less than five years for a return on investment will have to be implemented. All renovations received solar panels anyway with the exception of Neuron.”
Heat and cold storage system (ATES)
No matter how many solar panels you put on campus, it is not possible to become completely self-sufficient, says Meulen. This could generate just 8% of what is needed in terms of electricity. However, solar panels could generate the energy needed for the ATES. Connecting more buildings to that system is now the university’s first priority. And this is not so difficult and costs relatively little money because the sources are already in place. “This was well thought out at the time. Now it’s just a matter of connecting, plugging in and you’re done.”
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