A new $85-million University of British Columbia district energy system will dramatically reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption while advancing clean energy research and development opportunities at UBC.

Approved yesterday by UBC’s Board of Governors, the five-year project will replace UBC’s Vancouver campus’ aging steam heating system with a hot water-based system that will heat more than 100 buildings used by more than 70,000 UBC students, faculty and staff. Construction will begin on July 4.

The conversion will reduce Vancouver campus energy use by 24 per cent and its greenhouse gas emissions by 22 per cent, or 11,000 tonnes of GHGs, the equivalent of removing 2,000 cars from 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. These are the most aggressive carbon-reduction targets among the world’s top 40 universities.

“As a leader in sustainability, the University of British Columbia is dedicated to achieving these bold carbon reduction goals,” says UBC President Stephen Toope. “This project is a major advance in our climate action strategy and UBC’s transformation into a living laboratory for research and action.”

The project will include 14 kilometers of insulated piping, 131 energy transfer stations across campus and a 52-megawatt, natural gas-powered hot water plant to be built in 2013 on Thunderbird Boulevard.

The new system is expected to save UBC $4 million in operational and energy costs annually. The largest source of energy and financial savings will come from the system’s ability to heat the campus while operating at a significantly lower average temperature of 80°C than the outgoing system, which operates at 190°C.

The new system’s ability to operate at lower temperatures also provides increased compatibility with other technologies. As a result, it will integrate current and future UBC clean energy projects. This will enable improved collaborations between researchers, students, staff and corporate partners to explore and develop green technologies and best practices in such areas as geothermal energy, biomass gasification, ocean thermal energy, solar energy and waste heat recovery.

“The way UBC is integrating research and learning considerations in our operational decisions is unique among universities,” says Pierre Ouillet, UBC Vice-President, Finance, Resources and Operations. “As a result, we have an infrastructure project that embodies our institutional goals: It will make us more sustainable, create exceptional research and learning opportunities for students, staff and faculty, and enable increased partnerships with industry.”

Ouillet says much of the outgoing steam system – which will be decommissioned in 2017 – was built between 1922 and 1966 and has lived beyond its expected lifespan thanks to major maintenance programs, including partnerships with government.

“We have photographs of the steam plant with Model T Fords parked in front,” says Ouillet. “That’s how long it has been in service and how much technology has changed.”

While several large steam-to-hot-water energy conversions have occurred or are currently in process in Europe, including Paris, Munich and Copenhagen, the UBC project will be one of the first and largest of its kind in North America. The University of Rochester recently completed a smaller conversion project and Stanford University is preparing to begin a larger project later this year.

The project will occur in nine phases to minimize campus disruptions. Phase one will connect 15 buildings in the Lower Mall, which includes the Bioenergy Research and Development Project, a $27-million, first-of-its-kind project that will generate energy for the campus from biomass such as wood chips and beetle-killed pine when it opens in 2012. Totem Park student housing residences, the University Services Building and the Frank Forward building will also be included in the first phase.