Work has begun on a new $85-million clean energy system that will dramatically reduce UBC’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. When it’s completed in 2017, the new hot-water system will heat 130 buildings on campus — and replace the aging steam system, parts of which are nearly a century old.

“So this is our sexy project!” jokes Jeff Giffin, pointing to a shallow trench just west of Main Mall. Two workers in hardhats grin at him and continue manhandling a pair of pre-insulated pipes they are installing in the muddy ground. “Pretty spectacular, isn’t it? In a week the ground will be paved over and no one will notice the change at all.”

But the change Giffin, Alternative Energy Manager at Building Operations, is overseeing is actually quite spectacular. This is the first step in a massive, seven-year project that will see most of UBC’s Vancouver campus — a total of 130 buildings — switch from an antiquated steam heating system launched in 1922 to a new hot-water system.

The bulk of the project involves replacing the existing 14-kilometre maze of underground steam pipes with new pre-insulated pipes for carrying hot water. Steam is an inefficient way to heat because it has to be kept at a much higher temperature (186°C) than hot water (80°C). Many of the old steam pipes are also poorly or not at all insulated, so huge amounts of heat are lost in transit. And the new hot-water pipes don’t need to be buried as deeply, which saves money in installation and maintenance.

The buildings themselves are already heated by hot water systems, via steam heat exchangers, so only a minor conversion is needed in the buildings. “That’s what makes the process work,” says Giffin. “If we had to make changes inside all those buildings, the costs would spiral.”

Phase One of the Project

UBC’s Board of Governors approved the project in May and work on Phase One — involving eleven buildings around Lower Mall, from Totem Park Residence to the Frank Forward Building — began in July. “We’ve already installed two kilometres of piping,” says Giffin. “This phase will be a test, we’re using the existing steam heat exchangers in the University Services Building [USB] to heat the first eleven buildings, and work out the kinks. Get our feet wet.”

The pipes they are installing come from Poland. “We say this is a new technology,” says Giffin, “and it is in North America. But the Europeans have been using it for close to fifty years. They’re a long way ahead of us with a lot of this sustainability stuff. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re taking lessons already learned by the Europeans.”

That said, the UBC project is one of the first and largest of its kind in North America. The University of Rochester recently completed a smaller such conversion, and Stanford is about to launch an even larger project.

One of the beauties of the new system is its flexibility, because hot water can be heated any number of ways. If you heat directly with electricity or natural gas, you are stuck to one energy source, which may go up or down significantly in price over time. “But water from a district energy system can be heated with biomass, electricity, natural gas, solar, waste heat, geothermal, ocean thermal, cogeneration — and probably new technologies that haven’t been invented yet,” says Giffin. “This makes the system wonderfully flexible going forward in the decades ahead, when the global energy market may have changed beyond recognition.”

Using hot water will also allow UBC to conduct a number of clean energy research projects as part of the ongoing Living Lab initiative.

Full Steam Ahead

“What you’re seeing there are de-aerator vent losses,” says Giffin. Now he’s just off West Mall, pointing towards some clouds of steam rising from the UBC Powerhouse. De-aerators are unique to steam systems and consume 2 percent of the total steam generated at UBC; a further 20 percent is lost during distribution. The hot-water conversion will avoid these types of losses and improve energy efficiency by 24 percent, largely because the boilers and distribution system are less wasteful.

Opened in 1926, when it operated solely on coal, the steam powerhouse has used natural gas since the 1960s, and still heats most of the campus. It will eventually be decommissioned, but not until 2017, when the entire hot-water system will be up and running.

Steam technology dates back to the Industrial Revolution, the era of steam ships and steam trains; UBC has photos of Model T-Fords parked in front of the steam Powerhouse. It is still widely used in electricity generation but is being phased out for heat distribution, though Giffin likes to point out how well it has served the university for close to a century: “The youngest boiler in there is 42 years old, the oldest 65, and they’re still working away, heating the campus day and night!”

Another strength of the conversion project is the way it allows for decentralized energy sources. Natural gas-fired boilers will always be used as back-up, but most of the heat will come from clean energy sources like the Biomass Research and Demonstration Project and other innovative projects tapping into current systems that produce waste heat, such as the TRIUMF research facility on South Campus, which uses huge quantities of electricity in its linear particle accelerators.

The conversion project is a long-term investment with payback period of almost 25 years. The university estimates that it will save about $4 million a year in operating costs, so that’s how long it’ll take to earn back the set-up costs of $85 million. “But the lifetime of the district system is much longer than that,” Giffin points out. “It’s a major investment in sustainable infrastructure with a lifetime of sixty to eighty years.”

Those purely financial calculations do not include the huge ecological savings. The project will lower the campus’s energy use by 24 percent and its greenhouse gas emissions by 22 percent; that equates to 11,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs), or taking 2,000 cars off the road. It is a key component of UBC’s strategy to reduce institutional GHG emissions from 2007 levels by 33 per cent by 2015, 67 per cent by 2020 and 100 per cent by 2050.

If all goes well, Phase One will be finished in January, at which point the first eleven buildings will be switched over to hot water. “Hopefully we’ll have a few cold snaps, put it to the test,” says Giffin. “We should know by February how well it’s working. Then we’ll be able to decommission one of the poorest-performing sections of our steam system, which is great.”