UCT steps up energy sustainability efforts

Solar photovoltaic (PV) installations on rooftops and parking areas around UCT’s campus is just one of the options the university is considering to ensure a more energy sustainable campus.

The University of Cape Townʼs (UCT) new director of environmental sustainability, Manfred Braune, is working closely with faculties and departments across all campuses, as well as the Properties and Services department, on a plan that aims to reduce energy consumption and achieve close to net-zero carbon emissions by the period spanning 2030–2050.

This will be done by gradually using less electricity from the South African grid, which is currently very carbon intensive. Not only will this contribute towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, it will also ultimately save the university millions of rands every year.

The sustainability plan will include:

  • extensive energy audits of building energy consumption
  • intensified energy metering and monitoring
  • improved, automated building management systems
  • energy efficient lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning installations and retrofits
  • solar photovoltaic (PV) installations on rooftops and parking areas
  • new buildings that are highly energy efficient and certified “green”
  • plans for the Jammie Shuttle to shift from diesel to electric buses.

A feasibility study is already under way to determine which buildings and locations are most suitable for solar PV installations.

Over the past 10 years UCT has converted electric hot water boilers in residences to energy-efficient heat pumps, conducted energy audits in some buildings and retrofitted energy-efficient lighting fixtures in one residence.

In 2012 the university committed to green designs for all new buildings – independently certified by the Green Building Council South Africa – starting with the New Lecture Theatre on upper campus, which was completed in 2016.

The Graduate School of Business conference centre at the V&A Waterfront, which opened in July 2019, is also certified.

“One proposal we are considering is to consolidate our energy activities from various departments in future, perhaps under the umbrella of a single hub.”

Renewable energy on site

Braune, an alumnus of the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment (EBE), joined UCT in April 2019 to consider, among other things, how the university can save more energy and produce renewable energy on site.

“The intention behind establishing an office that is dedicated to environmental sustainability is to grow the institution’s efforts and deliver on its commitments in this regard,” he said.

There are different commercial models for rolling out solar PV, he explained, all of which UCT would explore in a feasibility study that is being conducted with the help of a specialist engineering consulting firm.

One possibility might be to lease UCT roof space to solar power providers, which could generate electricity that the university could use without having to invest capital in the infrastructure itself.

“Alternatively, UCT could invest in the infrastructure and see the full rand savings every month with a very good return on investment.”

Brauneʼs work will open up new areas for future energy research by staff and students across the university. It provides an ideal opportunity to link projects to research and learning activities, turning the UCT campus into a “living lab”.

The faculty that is most closely involved with these measures is EBE, which since the 1970s has placed a major research focus on energy issues, including energy sustainability, climate change and the relationship between water and energy.

These issues are multidisciplinary and a proper investigation of them usually relies on collaboration between different departments and faculties.

“The intention behind establishing an office that is dedicated to environmental sustainability is to grow the institution’s efforts and deliver on its commitments in this regard.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Professor Alison Lewis, the EBE dean, said: “Given the huge importance of energy in the economic life of the country, UCT is considering how to best serve these national interests.

“One proposal we are considering is to consolidate our energy activities from various departments in future, perhaps under the umbrella of a single hub. This reflects UCT’s recognition of the interdisciplinary work that is needed to address the energy problems facing our country.”

Cleaner energy production and energy storage cuts across many spheres, including chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and socio-economic and environmental issues, so a cross-disciplinary approach across various faculties is logical and necessary.

In keeping with this approach, EBE is reviewing its footprint in energy research with a view to facilitating greater interdisciplinary collaboration, similar to the way in which the Future Water Institute operates.

The establishment of the Environmental Sustainability Unit under Dr Reno Morar, UCT’s chief operating officer, provides the university with a new opportunity for integrated futures work in energy.

As part of this wider plan, EBE is restructuring elements of the Energy Research Centre (ERC) to ensure the future financial viability of its projects.

Since its formation, the ERC has investigated the overlapping challenges in environmental protection and socio-economic development, to deepen knowledge and understanding of energy and development needs, problems, challenges and innovative solutions.

These important projects and their research staff are being migrated to teams and units that have an appropriate shared focus.

Key entities

UCT research into the environment and sustainability is renowned worldwide, through key entities such as the Climate System Analysis Group (which consults to the United Nations), the Future Water Institute and the African Climate and Development Initiative. These initiatives aim to improve energy sustainability for communities across South Africa and the world.

UCT itself will benefit from an integrated approach to energy and the environment, said Braune.

“The university’s own campus needs better integrated environmental management and care. This concerns much more than waste management; it’s also about water and energy efficiency, human health, green investment and good citizenship.”