Smart business practices help UBC toward zero-emissions target

Image of Orion Henderson
UBC's Orion Henderson is leaning on sound financial planning, including investing in technologies with longer payback periods, to help the university progress toward its target of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

'It's not about trying to buy our way to sustainability by throwing money at the issue'

Over the years, UBC has undertaken ambitious sustainability projects, such as its EcoTrek initiative, a $40 million program which involved significant retrofits to major buildings at the university's Point Grey campus.

The measures undertaken in that effort — including upgraded lighting and setting up closed loop heating and cooling systems — provided compelling evidence for UBC to pursue other initiatives.

Now the university is aiming even higher. Its climate action plan aims for the complete elimination of corporate greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 2050. To start, it has set an initial target of reducing GHGs by 33 per cent by the end of 2015.

University serves as a test bed for sustainability

Achieving the initial target involves three major projects:

  • Converting building heating from steam energy to hot water, which is more efficient
  • A renewable bioenergy facility, which functions as a living laboratory
  • Optimizing the performance of individual buildings, to ensure they are as efficient as possible.

"It's not about trying to 'buy' our way to sustainability by throwing money at the issue," says Orion Henderson, director of energy planning and innovation for energy and water services at the university. "It's about smart business practices — reducing carbon and energy costs by bringing in incentives and grants."

Henderson says the university is positioned to take on projects with a longer payback schedule. With UBC's control over both residential and institutional developments, the campus serves as a test bed for sustainability.

"The advanced education sector offers Power Smart a unique opportunity to work on specific ways to implement energy savings projects on campuses throughout B.C.," says Ron Mastromonaco, BC Hydro senior key account manager for the sector. "It helps facilitate a 'living lab' learning environment to engage students, faculty and staff on the subject of energy conservation."

Innovation offers learning opportunities to students

There's constant pressure for institutions to reduce operating costs. Since maintenance and labour are relatively fixed expenses, electricity use and other utiilities are areas where significant reductions in expense can be achieved.

"You have to be creative once the 'low-hanging fruit' — like lighting — is taken care of," says Hugh Warren, chair of the Facilities Management Committee of the Canadian Association of University Business Officers. "You have to explore alternative energy sources, heat recovery, and more efficient buildings."

He agrees that universities serve well as learning environments about energy efficiency. Retrofitted buildings can be incorporated directly into student research, allowing them to evaluate results, new technologies, and ways in which older technologies can be improved. This can even guide students into career paths they may not have previously considered.

Warren says it's important for universities to have staff dedicated to staying current in the world of energy efficiency, so they can incorporate it to best serve individual institutions. He also believes financial incentives like those offered by BC Hydro to implement new technologies would be valuable on a national scale.

BC Hydro partnership facilitates progress

Although direct measurements can show when energy efficiency projects are successful, Henderson suggests it can be more difficult to quantify the impact of changes in behaviour. He says participation in the BC Hydro Workplace Conservation Awareness program is helping UBC quantify these impacts.

Henderson believes there is a common misconception that individuals can't make a difference. But he says people have to change their thinking: as individuals, they can influence their own energy bills and also influence everyone they interact with. It's a practice he lives by example every day.

"I feel a personal satisfaction in engaging students, staff, and faculty in conversations around sustainable choices in transportation, waste disposal, and reducing consumption of energy and water," he explains. "It's about helping everyone realize we can have mutually beneficial goals."