St Andrews powered by winds of change

July 30, 2009

Amid gloomy news on higher education finance, Scotland's oldest university is hoping to buck the belt-tightening trend with a green scheme that could see it banish electricity bills and even make a tidy profit.

The University of St Andrews plans to build a wind farm on coastal farmland to meet its energy needs, saving millions of pounds annually and making it carbon-neutral.

It is expected to also generate excess energy, which could be sold back to the National Grid to potentially generate millions of pounds in income.

The news comes as a consultation launched by the Higher Education Funding Council for England this week warned that universities will have to slash their carbon emissions by more than a third over the next decade or face financial penalties.

The consultation states that universities will have to cut emissions by at least 34 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.

St Andrews currently spends £5.4 million a year on energy.

Roddy Yarr, the university's environment and energy manager, said: "We have got to do something. We're just completely crippled by our energy costs. If the price of gas goes up, we have to pay for it, and that's money we could invest in research and teaching.

"It's a great opportunity and we have got to explore it. There would be more cost certainty for the university and that's a good thing."

The proposals have already been discussed with the local community, and a planning application is now being prepared.

The Government's grant letter to Hefce in January made it clear that future capital funds would be linked to carbon-reduction performance.

Hefce's consultation says institutions must aspire to achieve a carbon-reduction target of 50 per cent by 2020 and 100 per cent by 2050. It recommends either a mid-term target of a 25 per cent cut by 2015, or two interim milestones in 2012 and 2017.

Ian Leggett, chief executive of People & Planet, which compiles the annual Green League that ranks universities by their sustainability and carbon-management standards, said: "There is a growing recognition that transforming Britain into a low-carbon economy provides opportunities for universities, both in terms of teaching and research and in terms of financial management.

"Cutting high-cost, high-carbon expenditure is something all universities should be doing. St Andrews' planned investment in wind turbines takes the business case for going low carbon one step further.

"Instead of simply saving money, it will be generating income for the university and cutting Scotland's carbon emissions. It's a win-win investment."

But Martin Wiles, head of sustainability at the University of Bristol, said Hefce's proposed targets would require tough decisions about institutional priorities.

Bristol recently installed a computer system that will boost the university's research capacity, but it consumes large amounts of energy.

He said: "For a lot of universities this is starting to move into the realm of changing what we do as an institution rather than just working more efficiently.

"We're not going to get to these figures by having low-energy light bulbs."

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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