St Andrews aims for carbon-neutral future with boiler plan

Construction on £25 million biomass boiler in nearby village aims to cut energy costs for ancient university

March 3, 2016
University of St Andrews students relaxing on campus
Source: Alamy
Precious resources: St Andrews wants to be able to spend money going towards energy bills ‘on people rather than oil’

With its ancient stonework, distinctive red-cloaked undergraduates, alumni including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and a recent 600th birthday, the traditional view of the University of St Andrews is very much aligned with its place as Scotland’s oldest seat of learning.

However, a new energy plan that involves piping hot water from a £25 million biomass boiler four miles away aims to make its technology as cutting-edge as the most modern of university campuses.

The 6.5 megawatt boiler, which is being built in an old paper mill in the nearby village of Guardbridge, forms half of St Andrews’ highly ambitious plan to become carbon-neutral in its buildings over the next few years – the other main planned emissions cutter being a wind farm.

With annual utilities bills approaching £6 million and rising at up to 18 per cent a year, the plan is for the boiler’s clean energy to help control the university’s costs by removing reliance on fluctuating global oil prices, as well as cutting carbon dioxide by 6,000 tonnes a year.

The university says that the rise in fuel costs alone is equivalent to paying 120 staff – and, as Derek Watson, the institution’s quaestor and chief executive, puts it: “We want to be able to spend that money on people rather than oil.”

The boiler’s location has meant laying miles of underground pipes and shutting the main road through Guardbridge for up to eight weeks during the early months of 2016, causing travel headaches for many commuters.

The university had hoped to avoid shutting the road but was forced to because areas of the site were deemed of special scientific interest by Scottish Natural Heritage and also because the pipes could not be laid below the water table. About 2,000 information leaflets have been distributed throughout the local area, special presentations have been held and a 24-hour dedicated hotline set up in an attempt to manage the disruption.

But why build the boiler so far from town in the first place? Mr Watson explained that the alternative – installing a similar facility in St Andrews itself, which, with its famous golf courses, ancient history and beautiful coastline, is a highly heritage-sensitive town – was never an option.

“The planners were quite open and up front and said that we were not going to get planning consent,” he said.

That put Guardbridge, whose mill, Curtis Fine Papers, shut its doors in 2008 and was bought by the university in 2010, in the picture. “We hope to regenerate Guardbridge, which had its economic heart ripped out in 2008,” Mr Watson said. “It was a very well run mill; ironically it was shut by utilities prices – the cost of oil and water.”

The energy centre is being built with the help of an £11 million loan from the Scottish Partnership for Regeneration in Urban Centres Fund, a £10 million grant from the Scottish Funding Council and £4 million from the university’s own budget.

So how will it work? Instead of burning fossil fuels, water will be heated using wood chips cut on site from an annual 15,000 to 17,000 tonnes of logs sourced within a 50-mile radius. The water is expected to lose only about 3°C by the time it reaches the university’s buildings on the west side of St Andrews. It will then be pumped back to the boiler, its temperature having by then dropped by about a third, to be re-heated and used again.

Also included in the project is the planned relocation of more than 250 office staff to Guardbridge.

When it comes to cutting carbon, while finances are certainly a strong driver for universities, it must also be said that there are strong reputational advantages too – with scholarly research often pointing to the necessity for greener policies, as well as legally binding targets to cut a third of carbon dioxide by 2020 included in the UK Climate Change Act.

“If universities can’t lead on climate change, I’m not sure who can,” Mr Watson said. “Mother Nature doesn’t listen when you say we have to wait 10 years. These are issues we have to face.”

In numbers

120 – the number of staff that the rise in fuel costs is equivalent to paying

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