Release Date: December 6, 2023
BUFFALO, N.Y. – On the University at Buffalo’s South Campus, there’s a huge effort underway that has the potential to help UB take a big step forward in its goal to decarbonize the campus — and much of that work will take place in the tunnels and equipment spaces that house UB’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) infrastructure.
The groundwork for all this came in the form of a Clean Energy Master Plan for the South Campus that takes stock of how the campus uses energy (and from what sources), the infrastructure that’s used, and how energy is consumed within buildings; identifies the challenges involved; and then proposes solutions that will enable UB to achieve its carbon neutrality goals.
It’s all about decarbonization.
“Decarbonization is about how the university becomes more efficient electrically, but, more importantly, it’s about how do we ween ourselves off of natural gas — which currently accounts for 30% of UB’s carbon footprint — so we can meet the goals set by the university and New York State?” says Ryan McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer.
Through its 10 in 10 climate action plan, UB has set a goal to become carbon-neutral by 2030, while New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed an executive order in September 2022 directing state agencies to adopt a sustainability and decarbonization program.
“The state has been really clear that using natural gas in new builds is not an option because of its carbon intensity,” McPherson says. “The only economically feasible strategy is to transition that non-sustainable energy source to an electrical energy source through electrification.”
But if transitioning to an entirely new system for heating and cooling sounds like madness, McPherson reminds folks that UB has been down this path before: The South Campus used to have a coal-fired power plant before moving to natural gas.
UB’s South Campus comprises 46 buildings totaling more than 2.8 million square feet, with an annual energy cost of more than $3.8 million. Like all entities seeking to achieve long-term regenerative impacts on the environment, the university’s desire for sustainable results is balanced by the scarcity of capital funding.
The South Campus Energy Master Plan developed a strategy that would maximize the amount of construction that can be done by cost effectively implementing sustainable improvements, aligned with campus planning, that maximize the life cycle cost value to the university.
“We’re talking about fundamentally redesigning all the core HVAC infrastructure on the South Campus, all the stuff that people usually don’t see,” says Tonga Pham, Associate Vice President for Facilities and a key leader of the work.
Funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) allowed UB to contract with architecture, engineering, energy efficiency and construction management firm Wendel Companies to develop the energy plan. Wendel worked with UB Facilities and UB Sustainability to conduct a detailed assessment of energy usage on South Campus.
That resulted in a massive amount of data aimed at understanding how every building on the South Campus is set up in terms of heating and cooling.
View a PDF overview of the study.
As the oldest of the campuses, South uses a centralized steam system for heating. The steam that is produced is pushed out to buildings around the campus. (The cooling system is mostly decentralized.)
North Campus is the opposite. It has a decentralized heating system that relies on natural gas boilers in most buildings, but it does have a centralized cooling source that provides cooled water for air-conditioned buildings.
Natural gas accounts for 66% of heating and cooling energy usage on the South Campus, compared to 34% for electric. When it comes to energy costs, natural gas is cheaper, accounting for 34% of costs compared to 66% for electric. However, natural gas comprises 77% of greenhouse gas emissions versus just 23% for electric.
The electrification of the heating system is the primary hurdle to overcome on the path to a zero-carbon energy system, the report points out. There are two fundamental ways to achieve this: replacing the existing boilers with electric resistance heating, or replacing that equipment with heat pumps connected to various thermal energy sources.
The first option would allow the university to reuse much of the existing HVAC infrastructure and steam distribution system. But there’s a catch: Those new boilers would require a massive amount of electrical power that would raise UB’s electricity capacity from 14 megawatts to 50 megawatts.
That would require building a new electrical substation on campus and obtaining a new service from National Grid. Operating this type of system would also increase the campus’ annual electrical consumption by anywhere from 300 to 400%, resulting in approximately $3.4 million more per year in electricity costs.
In contrast, heat pumps — the system the university and Wendel propose converting to — will use 3 to 4 times less energy, creating a system that is more efficient, cost effective and able to operate within existing electrical capacity. It would result in annual energy cost of $228,000.
“It all comes down to the efficiency in the heat pump system,” Pham says.
The heat pump system, however, would require the replacement of the existing steam distribution system with a new, low temperature hot water system, which would also require new HVAC equipment.
Implementation of the South Campus Clean Energy Master Plan is already taking place with full renovations underway in both Crosby and Foster halls, and design work in Clark and Parker halls.
With the South Campus plan completed, the university has already turned its attention toward the much larger North Campus. NYSERDA is again providing partial funding for the North Campus Clean Energy Master Plan, with additional resources being leveraged from UB’s new climate action fund.