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.

Where DSR is a matter of degree

The University of East Anglia has around 15,000 students and 4,000 staff, spread over a campus of 320 acres just outside Norwich. This centre of higher education has found that the benefits of Demand Side Response (DSR) are, well… elementary. Martyn Newton, Assistant Director of Estates and Buildings, explains why.

Our site has a power consumption rate of some 5.5MW during the day, dropping to 2.8MW at night. In winter, it’s about 6MW and 3.2MW respectively. Back in 1999, we put in a Combined Heat and Power system and we generate about 60% of our power on-site with gas engines.

We have three 1MW engines installed in 1999, plus a 1.7MW unit included in 2008 that provide us with 6MW of heat if all running. It’s much more economical for us to buy gas at 2p a kilowatt and generate electricity at 6 to 7 p/kWh rather than buy it in at 10 to 11p a kilowatt and off-set running gas boilers for heat. It is right both from an economical and environmental perspective, because it reduces our carbon signature considerably.

A question of usage

Open Energi came to us about DSR and although we can’t vary the load greatly – a few minutes would be fine but a long period of 30 minutes would be difficult – we gave serious consideration to what we could do across campus. For example, we have a permanent air extraction system ventilating student residence buildings taking air out of shower pods. It was a case of ‘Does it really matter if it goes off for a few minutes? No, not really.’ Similarly, we have an art gallery on site that has around 30 air handling units. Does it really matter if they stop ventilating for a few minutes? Again, the answer is no.

The question we kept asking ourselves is ‘Would the customer really be affected?’ There are many benefits from our point of view. We realised that we can earn an income from operating our equipment slightly differently, the system is still under our control and we don’t have any expenditure in putting in the new system. We’re now considering more projects, such as the Olympic swimming pool, chilling equipment and sports hall ventilation. We can make available around 400kW currently and we can perhaps get to 0.5MW or a bit more in the next phase.

 We realised that we can earn an income from operating our equipment slightly differently.

Income generator

It’s completely automatic. The Open Energi box measures the local frequency of the mains. It senses it’s going down and says ‘That’s a bit too low’, and will then shed some of our load within two seconds. If frequency goes too high, then it puts on a bit of load.

The system has an accurate electricity meter that’s measuring everything so it can prove to National Grid that the event is really happening. National Grid is happy to pay Open Energi, and Open Energi pays us. A few other universities have come to have a look at it and have done something similar.

I think there’s quite a potential for Demand Side Response out there but there hasn’t been the incentive. We also haven’t had the technology to take advantage of it previously – the internet and the building management controllers that can act on all these variable factors.

We are now actually generating an income, just for operating our utilities slightly differently. It’s helping the country, the environment in terms of carbon emissions, we’re getting some money for it, and can disable it if we have to. So, for UEA it has been a case of ‘Why not?’”