When it comes to energy management leadership, can the tail wag the dog?

Peter Garforth says companies can lead communities on energy change, with benefits for both parties.

By Peter Garforth

Hundreds of cities across the United States and Canada are embracing the need to minimize their energy impacts to be close to carbon-free in the next 20 to 30 years to meet the challenge of mitigating the effects of climate change. However, the gap between understanding the need and implementing the deep and sustained transformations required often results in something close to collective paralysis. This is often followed by pilots and demonstration projects that fall far short of the scale and speed needed to make them successful. But are there examples of where pilot projects actually have sparked transformation?

About seven years ago, Sheridan College in Ontario embarked on an ambitious energy journey across all three of its campuses. In just over a year, the college developed a plan that would halve the campuses’ carbon footprint in less than 10 years, double the college’s efficiency, and deliver acceptable returns on the investments. The solution recommended in the plan drew on proven global best practices to minimize technical and investment risks.

Control and metering systems were systematically upgraded and extended as part of the approved plan and associated multiyear budget, essentially creating the basis for a smart energy network on each campus and across the college. Existing buildings are undergoing retrofits to increase their energy efficiency. New buildings must meet energy performance standards that exceed global best-practices benchmarks such as German A or A-plus rating levels. Further, the college sought out global industrial leaders to ensure that the system designs, installations, and costs were on par with markets with higher district energy use, such as northern Europe.

The college’s energy supply has been revamped to effectively combine on-site sources and regular utilities. The on-site supply portfolio comprises combined heat and power units, high-efficiency boilers, and electric and absorption chillers. Thermal storage is included to further optimize the technical and economic efficiency of the supply. Again, market leaders with worldwide expertise were sought out to be on the implementation team. The new energy centers also serve as educational spaces.

The college’s journey to complete the original plan’s energy transformation will continue for two to three more years.  It will then migrate to ongoing continuous improvement and culture change. The results to date are that the efficiency gains, emissions reductions, and economic performance have exceeded the plan’s original goals.

While interesting, the individual technical measures are less important than the performance benefits that accrue from holistic planning, implementing an integrated solution, and changing management practices and policies.  Equally important is the commitment to reach into global best practices. In effect, the college is a living example of how a small “community” can quickly and effectively transform its energy and climate performance.

In the past two years, both communities that host the larger campuses have teamed with the college to develop rigorous community energy plans aimed at efficiency gains and emissions reductions in the 60% to 80% range by 2050.  Brampton and Oakville, ON, see these plans as road maps to sustained community competitiveness while meeting the need to reduce energy impacts.

As this community process evolves, it is prompting the college to consider raising its own goals to further enhance its competitiveness for decades to come.

By embracing an integrated energy transformation, Sheridan College became the catalyst to influence the energy future of a combined population approaching a million people. This story could serve as an example for the industrial energy manager, especially during the creation of energy plans for larger, complex urban manufacturing sites. Energy transformation will make the site more competitive for the company. In the process, it can serve as an example for the wider community. In the long run, a more-efficient and cleaner community energy system will further enhance the site’s competitiveness.

We should recognize that sometimes the tail can wag dog … and down the road, the dog can even wag the tail!

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