Seeing the green light

The HE sector will, no doubt, wish to consider how best to reduce energy costs. Jason Prosser from Veale Wasbrough Vizards examines the issues

The environmental challenge of climate change was recognised in the Climate Change Act 2008 (the Act), the world’s first legally-binding framework to reduce a country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Act set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their 1990 levels by 34% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050.

This target and other related goals are not easy to meet and so the current government, which has stated that it will be the greenest ever, has hundreds of separate initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging sustainability and developing a low carbon economy to facilitate green growth and economic development.

The UK is committed to facing head-on the so-called energy ‘trilemma’ (the challenge to lower carbon emissions, maintain security of energy supply and manage energy costs) and the HE sector has a role to play. Between 1990 and 2005, there was a 33% rise in the HE sector’s total carbon emissions, demonstrating that HE institutions share the responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

These statistics and the impact of the Act led HEFCE, together with Universities UK and GuildHE, to implement a Carbon Reduction Target and Strategy for Higher Education in England (CRTS), imposing obligations on all HE institutions. The CRTS (published in 2010) requires institutions to reduce carbon emissions in scope 1 (direct emissions from sources owned or controlled by the organisation) and scope 2 (emissions generated from purchased electricity consumed by the organisation) by reference to the Act’s requirements set out above.

The HE sector is required to turn the national goals into institutional targets that can be measured over time against regular milestones. How this is done will vary widely and each institution will want to decide on its own way of achieving those targets to generate parallel environmental and financial benefits.

Institutions will need to devise, monitor and report on targets in accordance with specific Carbon Management Plans, which must be signed off by the governing body.

Sustainability issues can be factored into decisions regarding matters such as transport planning and the procurement of day-to-day goods and services, but one of the principal ways in which to address climate change is through energy efficient buildings. This is a priority as it is estimated that the construction, occupancy and operation of buildings is responsible for 50% of the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions.

The ways in which a building is constructed, insulated, heated and ventilated all contribute to its carbon emissions. Reducing energy consumption in buildings therefore plays an important role in the sector’s battle against climate change. There is a clear opportunity to use the built environment to address part of the carbon question.

A building’s carbon footprint can be addressed relatively easily when it is a new build project. A new building can include modern construction techniques and materials, energy efficient lighting and heating and its own onsite energy centre (using, for example, biomass boilers).

However, the elephant in the room is how to deal with existing building stock and infrastructure, particularly given that it is estimated that 66% of the buildings in the UK that will be standing in 2050 have already been built. How best to deal with an existing building that may be at risk of becoming obsolete from a green point of view (so called ‘sustainable obsolescence’)?

A building’s energy efficiency performance can be improved in all sorts of ways, often without significant expenditure, including passive heating, cooling and ventilation strategies, maximising daylight and minimising artificial light and zoning and controlling services installations. Non-technical solutions include reducing energy demand and encouraging behavioural change. There are also options which are more expensive, such as ground source and air source heat pumps, solar PV and solar thermal technologies, as well as wind turbines.

It’s normally better to reduce energy usage before generating more energy. This could be done, for example, by replacing older boilers and insulating buildings properly before adding solar panels or wind turbines.

Research has suggested that the main factors that affect the long-term viability of an asset and its potential for obsolescence include floor-to-ceiling heights, whether a building has listed status, the size, shape and flexibility of its floor plates and the efficiency of the mechanical and electrical installations.

There is also a strategic decision for institutions in pro-actively reviewing property within their portfolios and whether it is better to improve an existing building, convert it, replace it or dispose of it.

In practice, HE institutions are addressing the refurbishment of buildings in different ways. Some are using the opportunities available through HEFCE’s Revolving Green Fund. This provides recoverable grants for projects to assist with managing energy consumption and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are then repayable through the energy savings that are made.

Since 2008, the fund has allocated more than £60m to various universities. In the third and latest round, £21m was allocated to 43 universities, funding 37 small-scale programmes and 10 large projects.

LED lighting was the most popular type of project, followed by pipework insulation. Other projects included the provision of a combined heat and power (CHP) system, small scale hydropower and the complete fabric and services refurbishment of various 1960s buildings. The projects undertaken in the third round of the fund are set to reduce carbon emissions by around 20,000 tonnes per annum.

Another approach for retrofit projects is to appoint an Energy Services Company (ESCo) to assist in achieving carbon reductions. The ESCo will review the existing buildings in a property portfolio and recommend various energy efficiency measures. The ESCo guarantees a set level of energy savings to be achieved during the period of the arrangement if the recommended measures are implemented by the ESCo. Accordingly, the risk associated with
the delivery of energy savings is passed onto the ESCo rather than the institution and the savings achieved repay the
upfront cost of the works over a fixed period of time.

An ESCo can be appointed though an existing procurement framework such as RE:FIT (primarily used by London-based institutions but available, in principle, across the country) or appointed directly by an HE institution following an appropriate procurement process.

Many institutions have adopted BREEAM as a framework to ensure the sustainability of both their new build and refurbishment programmes. BREEAM is recommended in the CRTS as it delivers a strict set of criteria for the environmental assessment of university buildings. BREEAM assesses the environmental impact on areas including energy, transport, water, waste, land use, ecology and pollution of the construction works. The widespread adoption of BREEAM reflects the dramatic reduction in running costs that can be achieved.

HEFCE is committed to collecting and publishing carbon data from the various institutions and will report annually as to the progress made against the sector level targets. There is undoubtedly an opportunity for institutions to look again at their Carbon Management Plans and their estates as a whole to ensure that all practical steps are being taken to ensure long-term sustainability.

Jason Prosser is a partner in the Energy & Utilities team at national law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards, which is number one ranked for its work in the education sector. Jason specialises in construction and projects work, advising on a wide range of new build, refurbishment and renewables projects for higher and further education institutions. For further information on any construction or projects issues you may be facing, Jason can be contacted on 0117 3145 237 or

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?