Sustainability at Keele University

Keele University has won a reputation for sustainability, but in the next decade it hopes to reach net zero carbon emissions. Can it reach the elusive holy grail?

The sector – and the world – has rapidly woken up to the fact that sustainability is a topic far bigger than carbon dioxide emissions. This ‘fringe’ issue – affectionately mocked for years on TV shows like Twenty Twelve (who can forget Kay Hope and her “ongoing commitment to future problems”?) – is asserting itself as more than a box-ticking exercise. At the UN Conference of Parties in Glasgow this November, the higher education sector will deliver its blueprint for change through the new Climate Change Commission for Higher Education.

HE institutions desperately need direction on how to grow without unbalancing the ecosystem. It is a question being tackled with vim and vigour at Keele University. The university was one of the first in the world to announce a climate emergency, adding that it would set itself a target of 2030 to reach carbon neutrality. But can this pioneering green university go all the way?

In the beginning… 

Keele’s most impressive environmental project to date – the £22m Smart Energy Network Demonstrator (SEND) programme – started in July 2018. 

The university’s ambition was to transform itself into a living laboratory, where scientists could research, develop and demonstrate new smart energy technologies in the ‘wild’. Deputy vice-chancellor and provost Mark Ormerod describes the project as “potentially completely transformative, not just in this country but globally in terms of reducing carbon emissions”. 

Like most campus universities, Keele mirrors a small town. Around 11,000 students are based on its campus, nestled in the Staffordshire hills; it has commuters, workplaces, accommodation, green spaces, shops and a constantly churning population. There are over 3,000 students and 300 staff living full-time on the campus, which covers more than 600 acres, making it the UK’s largest single-site HEI campus.

Keele University is the largest single campus HEI in the UK.

The SEND programme encompasses more than 40 separate projects, which include developing: better batteries for the car and home; long-life hydrogen fuel cells; energy-usage forecasts with the help of machine learning; smart sensors; ‘emotive’ smart meters that detect behaviour change; and AI systems which can better distribute energy. These schemes form part of The New Keele Deal, a £70m investment plan launched by the university, local councils, NHS trusts and a local enterprise partnership to boost innovation and research in the region. Around 200 local SMEs in the region will benefit and the scheme hopes to generate some 700 jobs, all while saving around 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. 

In November 2019, Keele got the go-ahead from health and safety executives to become a test bed for HyDeploy, a demonstration of hydrogen in the home. Experts hope to blend the volatile gas with natural gas to create a safe, greener alternative to the fuel we use in our hobs and boilers. This technology could utilise existing infrastructure for the short-to-medium term, offering breathing space for government and business to undertake the ‘green revolution’ in every household. 

The university acquired planning permission for wind turbines and a solar farm last summer, which it plans to integrate into its own private energy network – and even sell some of its spare renewable energy back to the national grid. 

The university began buying all its electricity from renewable sources 10 years ago, but that was never a long-term solution, Prof Ormerod says. “You’re just taking someone else’s renewable energy – it’s not increasing the amount of renewable energy generated. What we’re doing will increase energy generation, meaning there’s more for the rest of the country.” 

Since 2015/16, the university has reduced its electricity usage by 6.4% and CO₂ emissions by 26%. Since 2014/15, the university has added around 1,000 extra students to its cohort. Emissions have been in decline since 1997, but the university has tripled in size. 

To do this by 2030, we’ve got to accelerate. It is certainly doable, but we’re at a break poin

“If you plot our current rate of reducing carbon,” Prof Ormerod continues, “it would actually take Keele until 2050 to reach net-zero carbon emissions. And, obviously, you get the quick wins in earlier, like changing light bulbs or insulating buildings. So, we’ve got to increase our ambitions now to change the trajectory of that downward slope. 

“To do this by 2030, we’ve got to accelerate. It is certainly doable, but we’re at a break point.

“I would say there are probably many organisations that have targets to be carbon neutral that probably have no chance of making it because they don’t have a credible, realistic plan as to how it can be done. We’ve shown it’s not a simple undertaking at all to be able to do that.” 

Keele’s plan is fully costed but securing leadership support meant arguing that savings were there to be made. “There will be financial savings in the long run, and if you factor them into the wider business plan it will pay off, but we still had to find that capital in the first place. Although you can get loans, some of the environmental agenda does cost money. Some universities are going to find it hard to prioritise that over other pressures.

“There was work to do persuading people who just want to do their jobs to do things differently. So, for example, the process of clearing out student rooms used to be done incredibly efficiently, but in an unsustainable way. We slowed that process down, making sure that we upcycled or recycled furniture and food. I think staff are there now. I think people are taking real pride in doing it.”

That sort of institutional leadership is fundamental, Dr Zoe Robinson tells me as we talk about her work as director of education for sustainability at Keele. As a professor of sustainability in higher education, there are few better placed to advise Keele’s leaders. She says the green agenda has flourished in her time at the university. “High-level messaging is so important. You need to have that consistent messaging from the senior levels. I think it has taken about seven years for it to become truly embedded and over that time we’ve had two VCs. At the time the agenda was developed, there was a lot of pressure from the ground up, which the senior leadership team responded to.”

Keele University
Students at Keele help manage and maintain an allotment.

The students 

Keele’s agenda is no bean-counting exercise. At the beginning of the decade, four undergraduates helped refit a disused bungalow to demonstrate new models for sustainable student living – there is even an allotment for home-grown produce. The project has led on to an organic veg bag scheme. There is even a zero-waste shop on campus. 

The university has spread the topic of sustainability far and wide in the pedagogical remit of all its departments and schools; it now estimates that close to 100% of its undergraduate programmes integrate opportunities to explore sustainability challenges. 

Dr Robinson, in her role as director for sustainability education, engaged with her colleagues to help them “see the link between sustainability and their own disciplines”. 

Dr Robinson describes these projects, as well as the reminders, messages and signs around campus, as all part of “subliminal curriculum”. A new level 4 teaching module – Greening Business: Employability and Sustainablity – devised by her aims “to provide students with the knowledge, understanding and skills to improve the environmental performance of their current and future employers. 

“The overall goal is that all our students leave with a sustainability lens to look at the world through, to have both a professional and personal passion for this issue.” 

  I’m very excited about the conversation around the university, and the willingness to do new things 

The next stages

Prof Ormerod is pinning his hopes for further carbon savings on a new approach to IT. Video conferencing has meant students in the joint Veterinary School no longer need to be ferried from Harper Adams University, in Shropshire, every day. IT accounts for the largest part of Keele’s electricity bill and curbing this consumption will rely on rolling out more energy-efficient servers and computers. The deputy vice-chancellor also hopes carsharing schemes and negotiations with local bus companies will offer staff at Keele more sustainable commuting options. He also wants staff to “question” the trips they take for the university, while accepting foreign travel cannot be banished entirely. 

Academic flights are a thorny issue for the sector. “We can never get rid of emissions from flying entirely, so some offsetting is inevitable but that can only go so far. There is a huge problem with offsetting, which is that you simply offset your guilt and carry on as normal. We’re at the early stages of that journey, but I’m very excited about the conversation around the university, and the willingness to do new things,” Prof Robinson explains.

The university has a campus that incorporates many buildings from the mid-20th century, which are harder to insulate.

Running through his checklist, it is not long before Prof Ormerod is discussing Keele’s buildings, many of which date from when it received its royal charter in the 1960s. “If I were to design a campus from scratch, I’d build it in a very different way,” he acknowledges. A post-war emphasis on building on a budget has left Keele with an inherited estate not suited to its modern agenda. New buildings have to pass stringent environmental standards on things like insulation, with the air tightness test (ATT), and “the contractor does not get paid unless it manages to achieve those standards”. 

The mid-20th century structures have posed a bigger challenge to Dr Ormerod and his team, but a new centralised energy centre, which sits at the centre of a web of pipelines, has eradicated the numerous, inefficient boilers housed in every building. 

Since the announcement of the carbon neutral 2030 target, the agenda has reached an exciting stage, says Dr Robinson, because everything is on the table. 

“We’ve gone from ‘where are we now, where do we think we can get to?’, and turned it on its head. The deadline has focused minds on the big decisions.” 

That focus could be what sets Keele apart. We’ll be watching in anticipation.

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