By Refentse Malatji
This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 10 of VARSITY News.
I may not be the only student wondering if UCT is moving towards becoming an environmentally sustainable campus in the wake of the global climate strike. I sat down with Manfred Braune, UCT’s new Environmental Sustainability director to find out whether the institution is taking steps to reduce energy consumption on campus.
Ocular proof of the changes UCT has made to the infrastructure to reduce energy consumption may be difficult to see. However, over the past 10 years, UCT has made strides in its aims of becoming an environmentally sustainable campus. The New Lecture Theatre (NLT), completed in 2016, is the first independently certified green building on campus in accordance with UCT Council decision of 2012 that all new buildings must be green buildings independently certified by the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA).
Manfred states that energy efficiency was a key component of what makes this lecture theatre a green building. Besides this, the building has many other green building features, including that it made use of recycled aggregate in its concrete and it collects rain-water in tanks to flush its toilets, to name just a few. Other large new buildings designed before this, such as Snape and the New Engineering Building were also designed as green buildings making use of a great deal of daylight, energy efficient electrical lighting and efficient air conditioning systems. However, these buildings were not certified by the GBCSA because their design documentation preceded the Council decision to obtain independent certification from the GBCSA for all new buildings.
“With newer buildings, it’s easier to design energy efficiency in – one has a blank canvas. On existing buildings there is a steady ongoing approach to energy efficiency.” Manfred explained that it’s somewhat difficult with the existing buildings. With some of the older buildings, heritage approval is required. “The heritage issues are actually very difficult and quite sensitive to deal with. That’s been has been a real challenge.”This had made it difficult to gain momentum. However, they’ve managed to make progress. This can be seen in some of the residences on campus. Over the past 10 years, UCT has replaced electrical heating cylinders with heat pumps. Heating water makes up a considerable chunk of energy consumption in residences. He gave another example where a few lecture facilities make use of occupancy sensors;the air conditioning system turns off automatically in empty lecture venues after a certain time.
Pull Quote: “Greenhouse gas emissions, the pollution that we’re responsible for via Eskom’s coal power, that’s what we have to reduce as quickly as possible.”
Reducing energy use is just one part of the plan in a move towards a more sustainable campus. “It’s not just about energy efficiency but also about the other components responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.”Things like travel and filling up air conditioner systems contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Air conditioners use refrigerant gas that leak over time and must be filled up again. The refilling of refrigerant gas and other greenhouse gas emissions is then recorded in UCT’s annual carbon footprint report.
The report is executed according to a global protocol for greenhouse gas emissions.From this, the data is monitored to examine ways to further reduce carbon emissions. Manfred explained that it’s often difficult to pin-point exactly why there was a reduction or an increase in a year. This is because the data isn’t that fine grained. “One of the things I’m doing is developing a strategy that says by when are we going to reduce and by how much. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Manfred is aiming to make the process more programmatic to ensure consistency every year to understand which projects resulted in reductions.He hopes that UCT’s carbon emissions will be reduced to 20% or 30% over the next 10 years, but ideally this should be as much as 50%. This is also dependent on external factors, like a surge in technological development or the possibility of buying renewable energy.
“Greenhouse gas emissions, the pollution that we’re responsible for via Eskom’s coal power, that’s what we have to reduce as quickly as possible.” This doesn’t need to be done through UCT’s own infrastructure. At the moment, energy is bought through the council from Eskom which uses coal to produce electricity. Hypothetically, if UCT were able to buy renewable energy from renewable energy farms (like a wind farm) in a couple of years, this would drastically change greenhouse gas emissions on campus. Though this is an ideal situation, Manfred explains that this is currently not legal and is something we can’t hold out for. “We have to take action now by reducing energy consumption of our own infrastructure.”
Manfred is currently working on an analysis of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels across all campuses to understand the potential there is for this. He’s hoping to get down to 30 buildings or 30 sites where it’s most feasible for the installation of PV panels on rooftops of buildings and possible shading of some parking areas. “By December or January, we’ll have a full report…My gut feeling is that approximately 20% of our energy would be able to come from the sun.” The PV installation program could be a 5-year program, or it could take 10 years. This is dependent on whether they run into difficulties regarding restrictions on heritage buildings. The project could potentially reduce carbon emissions by 20%. With UCT currently spending an estimated (R80 Million) on energy annually, 20% off that can do a lot. “Saving energy is a strong business case for the university because of the significant cost savings we can achieve every year.”
When asked what staff and students can do to reduce energy consumption, he said, “We can actually make a difference if we change our own behaviour.” Something as simple as turning a light off or minimising shower time means using less energy. Being conscious of the waste we create is another thing to look out for. For example, Manfred no longer uses single use coffee cups but brings a cup from home instead when getting a cup of coffee from the Food & Connect stalls nearby. These small changes can go a long way.