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The fast lane to net zero

The University of Liverpool gains insight into a greener future through modern solutions

Founded in 1881, the University of Liverpool has a long tradition of teaching and research. It offers over 400 undergraduate and postgraduate courses to 32,000 on-campus and online students from 160 countries. It collaborates with 1,300 external organisations, is associated with nine Nobel Prize winners, and 91% of its research is world-leading or internationally excellent. In short, it’s focused on the future.

This is why the university is committed to working in partnerships both locally and globally to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals, leaning on its strengths in research and education to find and share solutions that could lead to a sustainable future. Its commitment led to the goal of achieving net zero carbon by 2035. For an organisation of this size, with multiple buildings of various ages and designs, and with research equipment that uses a lot of energy, this is a very ambitious goal.

As part of its determined journey towards sustainability, the university’s Materials Innovation Factory (MIF)—a world-leading materials research facility—is using £1.33 million funding from Research England to make its building more environmentally sustainable, provide useful lessons to the rest of the university, and help it develop a pathway to achieving its net zero target.

As we go forward with this system, there are so many opportunities for looking at power consumption and identifying energy savings.”
Martin Harrop, Programme Manager at the Materials Innovation Factory, University of Liverpool

Relying on experts

Instigating true change required the MIF to have clear, reliable, and granular data on its current energy performance. It chose to work with Centrica Business Solutions and its PowerRadar™ product to gather this information quickly, simply, and without disrupting any of its research. The facility houses a large range of critical and sensitive analysis and research equipment that require constant power and therefore any disruption during installation was unacceptable.

“This is predominantly a research building,” says Jon Mercer, Head of Programme Operations at the Materials Innovation Factory, within the University of Liverpool. “The world-leading research undertaken within the building requires high-end equipment to be ready and available; taking weeks to recalibrate if power is interrupted, which is unacceptable for us. It was therefore very important to find a metering solution that had a negligible impact on our lab users. The install of the clip-on meters was non-invasive and allowed us to continue our operations with no interruption in power. The overall installation has also been extremely smooth and professionally executed.”

The installation was done by Smartcool, one of Centrica’s accredited value-added resellers. The crew only needed two weeks to safely install 838 sensors within ~40 distribution boards over five floors, without any interruptions to power supplies. The capabilities that Smartcool brings to the table are essential in ensuring a safe, quick, and effective installation. “The university has been investigating a number of possible metering solutions,” says Steven Martin, Executive Vice President and CTO of Smartcool. “We did a demonstration and I could see their minds just racing about everything they wanted to gather because it was so easy and cost-effective, so what started as monitoring equipment within a few labs turned into doing the entire building.”

We can now identify issues quickly and even set up email alerts to highlight problems and instigate further energy saving improvements.”
Martin Harrop, Programme Manager at the Materials Innovation Factory, University of Liverpool

Simplicity in a small package

The sensors are self-powered and require no batteries, instead relying on cable power induction. They are also wireless and transmit energy usage data to a data collector that sends the data to the cloud via a cellular network.

From there, that data is made available for analysis in PowerRadar™ and can be accessed via a web browser and mobile application. The data is visible within minutes of deploying the sensors without requiring sophisticated integration. This means that no Wi-Fi network is necessary, and the university didn’t need to breach its firewall or compromise its network security. What’s more, the one-way transmitted data is secure and contains no identifying information that could infringe GDPR requirements.

“Alternative solutions used wired sensors that resulted in a highly congested distribution board and concerns for future maintenance, particularly considering the number of sensors we required,” says Martin Harrop, Programme Manager at the Materials Innovation Factory. “The Panoramic Power™ sensors are compact and self-powered, resulting in a much simpler and unobtrusive installation. This, combined with the extremely competitive cost and modular format of the system, allowed us to expand the system far further than originally planned and achieve a significantly more powerful tool than we had thought was possible within our budget.”

Using data to feed change

The data obtained by the sensors provides immediate insight into the building’s energy performance. For example, seeing the amount of energy used when the building is empty—at night and on weekends—made it clear that reducing these loads could save the university thousands of pounds per year.

With PowerRadar™, it’s easy to see which circuits are contributing to energy usage in the off-hours. But it’s also now possible to drill down and see exactly how much power is used where, when, and why. The building now has a simple answer that offers clear, real-time, and historical data about its energy use which can be used proactively to make decisions and definitively measure the effect of improvements and behaviours.

“As we go forward with this system, there are so many opportunities for looking at power consumption and identifying energy savings,” says Harrop. “For example, we suddenly saw that there were some unexpected and significant increases in power overnight one weekend when nobody was in the building. The data showed that it was due to a backup immersion heater in one of the water tanks.”

“It was a particularly cold night and the heater on the tank had come on to stop the tank from freezing due to the district heating network failing to warm the water sufficiently. We can now identify issues quickly and even set up email alerts to highlight problems and instigate further energy-saving improvements. In the case of the above example, can we improve the district heating networks performance? Should the tank insulation be increased? Could we have a more efficient backup heating solution? Those are the kinds of things we put the system in place for and it is already helping us identify new energy savings we hadn’t previously considered.”

Such thinking can cover anything from lighting to heaters and HVAC systems. Solutions for heat dissipation and management could be an option with obvious benefits visible right in the data. The MIF is well on its way to finding new processes and approaches to reach a goal of reducing its energy usage by 45% over the next four years.

Advanced placement for the future

The energy-saving project in the MIF building could be just the beginning and lessons from this experience could be transferred across the campus. “The funding was aligned to this building specifically,” explains Mercer. “But if we could demonstrate that we can make savings on a relatively efficient and modern building we should be able to translate those to an older building and make much greater savings there too.

We have a test bed here and that was the whole purpose of funding the pilot, to demonstrate what’s possible and generate some best practices. It might not be replicated to such a high level of granularity in every single building, but there will be insights that people will take from this.”

One desired effect is to empower people working within the campus by providing clear and easy energy data they can use to have control and strive for better accountability over energy usage within their own remit.

Data can trigger ideas and help justify other projects because this pilot was funded with the intention to scale up. What’s more, visibility into the building’s performance will not only raise awareness as to how everyone uses energy, but it might also help drive behavioural change though this new knowledge. It will also help contribute to the university’s net zero strategy, removing energy waste, and in the future, investing in new technology. Interestingly, the first step to achieving huge change was simply installing
some sensors.

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