Energy and degasification for a sustainable future

  • 14 February 2023

Energy, degasification and the climate emergency are at the forefront of people’s thoughts, including at Gonville & Caius College.

Cognisant of the climate crisis, plus the cost of gas, a degasification project has been initiated, led by Fellow in Chemical Engineering Professor Alex Routh and Estates Manager Andrew Gair, whose CV includes working as a consultant in the field of mechanical engineering.

This interdisciplinary project has had input from many others, including the Master, Professor Pippa Rogerson, the Senior Bursar, Robert Gardiner, and Jennifer Phillips, the Domestic Bursar until October 2022. All recognise the importance of a sustainable future to our 675-year-old institution.

What has resulted from initial research and calculations is a multi-year and multi-million-pound project to insulate and electrify the College’s estate, which includes external housing, the West Road site, and the historic Old Courts site in the centre of Cambridge. The scale of the project is enormous; estimates of up to 17 years and an initially estimated cost at current prices in excess of £20m.

First, pilot studies will be carried out to determine the practical benefits of the theoretical work which was undertaken to determine what options are available, what carbon savings could be made, and what the work would cost.

It was determined that more insulation and ideally ground source heat pumps would be the most appropriate action, with air source heat pumps installed where a ground source heat pump would not be practical. A ground source heat pump in Harvey Court gardens might also be capable of supplying energy to the University of Cambridge’s Sidgwick site.

A joined-up approach across the University, its colleges, and the city, would be welcomed. However, with collaborating often complicated at many levels, a pragmatic balance will have to be struck between cooperation and achievement of a faster outcome.

The Caius research has taken place at houses on Mortimer Road and Harvey Road, pictured below, with internal wall insulation results being made available in summer 2023. 

“What we’re proposing on the buildings here is what everyone’s solution is going to be – insulate and electrify,” Professor Routh says.

The first complete refurbishment of an outside property is being generously funded through a donation through a bequest from the will of James (Harry) Goodhart (Natural Sciences 1953) and will target 4 Gresham Road.

A tree lined road with large houses either side

Caius already has a novel approach in Old Courts which is both cost and energy saving and linked to the kitchen refurbishment project which was completed in December 2020. The approach was conceived by Professor Axel Zeitler, also a Fellow in Chemical Engineering.

Usually, heat from fridges and freezers is rejected, using noisy fans that blow hot air to the outside. In Caius' case, hot air used to be blown from the basement to street level.

Now this heat is used to preheat our domestic hot water which serves amongst other things the kitchen dish and pot washer. This uses only half of the available energy so the heat recovery technology used in that project is performing much better than expected. 

A feasibility study for making wider use of this energy in Gonville Court is currently being developed and along with a study in to the use of ground source heat pumps and a much reduced gas boiler capacity should significantly and positively affect both our carbon footprint and running costs in this part of the College.

Professor Zeitler says: “I pushed for implementing an efficient heat recovery solution in the kitchen project from the kitchen exhaust air and the fridge/freezers in the basement – but the design resulted from a big team effort. 

“It is a really innovative solution. At the time of the kitchen refurbishment project, the investment was not justified commercially. Still, the College pursued it nonetheless with a view of long-term sustainability and to educate our contractors on what can be done with such 'waste heat'. 

“Now, it probably even makes commercial sense – it looks like we made an even better decision in the end.”

For the feasibility study, Professor Routh and Andrew Gair had support from another Caius Fellow. They used an approach from the Aviation Impact Accelerator – a project led by Caius Fellow Professor Rob Miller – in their calculations, which were then checked by external consultants.

The plans have been presented to the College Council, a Benefactors event and the College’s General Meeting of Fellows.

Cost is a major consideration, while along with the volatility of gas prices there is the need for clean electricity production.

Professor Routh adds: “We estimated our straight return for the College on this at about 2%. It’s not enough to financially justify it, but with the necessity to decarbonise, the College is hoping to go ahead.” 

The College is committed to this long term project to degasify our estate in a practical and evidence-based manner 

~ The Master, Professor Pippa Rogerson

The trial will inform refinements to the approach of the full project, and it is planned for results to be made available for others to utilise.

The Master, Professor Pippa Rogerson, says: “There is no Planet B. The College is committed to this long term project to degasify our estate in a practical and evidence-based manner. There will be a financial cost. Nonetheless, the various innovative ideas from people working together in College, along with established advice, have already proved their worth financially.”

Senior Bursar Robert Gardiner adds: “The importance of this project cannot be overestimated and the fact that consultants had little to add to our own plans shows the power of the College community.”

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