Student accommodation helps solve energy challenge

Thanks to an innovative partnership approach to demand side response (DSR), Oxford Brookes is unlocking vital flexibility from its student accommodation blocks. It’s all part of a wider sustainability strategy to leave a positive mark on the world. Gavin Hodgson, Energy and Carbon Reduction Specialist at Oxford Brookes explains.

Oxford Brookes is currently ranked as one of the best modern universities in the UK, topping The Sunday Times’ rankings of modern universities for 11 of the past 12 years. The university serves over 17,000 students from three main campuses in and around Oxford so it’s not surprising that we face a fairly hefty energy bill of around £2.4 million per year.

Of course we’d rather be spending this money on improving our campus and equipment, so we are always looking at ways we can reduce our energy use and become more sustainable.

Positive contribution

At Oxford Brookes, we believe sustainability is a defining issue of our generation. To ensure we respond appropriately we’ve adopted a Net Positive Impact approach. This is a holistic approach designed to help us go beyond reducing our negative impacts and identify ways in which we can make an explicit and verifiable overall positive contribution to society and the environment.

The pioneering DSR project we have worked on with Open Energi and Prefect Controls is a perfect example of this in action. Yes, we’re seeing direct benefits by way of revenue for participating in DSR, but equally it’s enabling us to have an impact beyond our estate and help drive positive change in the electricity system as a whole; supporting greater use of renewables, cutting our reliance on fossil fuelled power stations and creating a smarter, more efficient network.

We were the first university in the UK to take advantage of a new partnership between Open Energi and Prefect Controls to unlock real-time flexibility from student accommodation. It’s the first time Open Energi has implemented its technology via a third party and it will enable multiple smaller loads, like 4kW water heaters and 1.5kW panel heaters, to participate in Dynamic Frequency Response, which is very exciting.

We’re seeing direct benefits by way of revenue for participating in DSR, but equally it’s enabling us to have an impact beyond our estate and help drive positive change in the electricity system as a whole.

For us it was a relatively straightforward process as we already had Prefect Controls’ Prefectirus energy management system installed. We’ve been using it since 2014 to help us reduce energy use across our student accommodation blocks. For example, if the heating is left on in a student bedroom which is empty, the system will spot this and turn it down automatically.

Open Energi is able to connect with our equipment via Prefect Controls’ network and ask heaters and hot water tanks in our student accommodation blocks to automatically and invisibly shift their energy consumption to help National Grid balance electricity supply and demand across the country. By aggregating flexible demand from our student accommodation and making this available in real-time we are helping to build a smarter, more sustainable energy system for the UK.

Success leads to growth

We started late last year by trialling the technology across 5 water tanks providing hot water to 30 student rooms. We had no issues whatsoever and most importantly, neither did any of our students. Because equipment can only respond if it is within its normal operating parameters i.e. temperature bands, there’s no risk of water getting too hot or too cold.

Off the back of this success, we have signed a 10-year agreement with Open Energi. Our aim is to integrate DSR across a total of 71 tanks with a second phase planned to target 300 panel heaters, representing over 700kW in total.

We’re really proud of the role we’re playing in helping to transform our energy system and hope what we have done will encourage other universities to follow suit. Electrically heated student accommodation uses an estimated 378MW of power so imagine the impact if we could tap into it all.