PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS POST WAS UPDATED IN FEBRUARY 2021. PLEASE GO TO THE FOLLOWING LINK FOR THE UPDATED VERSION:
The top 23 Australian universities for climate action commitments in 2021
Previously, we looked at commitments of all levels of Government regarding climate change. In this article, we would like to examine another industry segment that is driving ambitious carbon commitments – universities.
When tasked by a university in Queensland to develop their carbon management plan leading them to net zero, we investigated why universities are at the forefront of sustainable energy leadership and found the following three reasons:
- Leading by research in sustainable energy technologies
Across Australia, and globally, universities play a crucial role in researching solutions for mitigating climate change. Australian universities have long led in renewable energy research, prominent examples including the establishment of the UNSW Solar Photovoltaics Group back in the 1970s. UNSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering and ANU’s Energy Change Institute continue to develop leading research in renewables and low carbon technologies. Across all Australian states and territories multi-pronged research on sustainable energy technologies is developing the solutions for tomorrow’s energy systems. Just a few examples include:
- Griffith University’s Centre for Clean Environment and Energy
- University of Newcastle’s Priority Research Centre for Frontier Energy Technologies and Utilisation
- University of Technology Sydney Centre for Clean Energy Technology
- University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Energy Institute
- University of Tasmania’s Centre for Renewable Energy and Power Systems
- University of South Australia’s Barbara Hardy Institute, which develops leading research on sustainable energy and low carbon living
These efforts, allied to ever-increasing opportunities for sustainable energy study, from degree to vocational education levels, will develop the skills to underpin Australia’s transition to a clean energy economy.
Universities also collaborate in forums like Climate KIC (Knowledge Innovation Community). Climate KIC is a national cross-sector innovation partnership, which is focused on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Its purpose is to help bring to market innovative climate change solutions by connecting key players across the whole innovation pathway. Amongst the founding members are Curtin and Griffith Universities, as well as the University of Melbourne.
- Leading by fossil fuel divestments
Divesting from companies that extract and burn fossil fuels is seen by many organisations as an ethical imperative to help address the problem of climate change. The movement has grown rapidly over recent years, and Australian universities are joining other organisations like councils and super funds in making divestment commitments. Examples of such commitments can be seen in the list below:
- La Trobe: divest from the “top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies ranked by the carbon content of their fossil fuel reserves within five years”
- Swinburne: “divest from companies that earn significant revenues from fossil fuel extraction or coal power generation”
- Queensland University of Technology (QUT): “no fossil fuel direct investments” and “no fossil fuel investments of material significance”
- Monash University and the Australian National University (ANU) have taken first steps to partially divest by targeting coal
- Leading by reducing their own carbon footprint
Universities are large energy users, estimated to consume around 11 PJ of electricity and gas annually, leading to emissions of more than 1 million tonnes of CO2-e. According to research from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Universities may spend as much as $700m on energy per year.
Universities have tremendous potential to improve their sustainability performance and decrease their spend on energy, especially in light of rising energy prices. Being more sustainable is also seen by students as something universities need to excel in and as something students want to be involved with.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is thus an increasing focus of university sustainability strategies. While energy efficiency has long underpinned efforts to reduce cost and emissions, rising energy prices and lower technology costs are seeing many universities opt for large-scale on-site solar PV systems, generating emissions-free energy and visibly demonstrating their commitment to leadership and innovation.
More and more universities are setting ambitious goals for renewable energy and carbon abatement within their operations. A scan of carbon commitments made by universities can be seen in the list below:
- Charles Sturt University (CSU) was the first University to obtain NCOS-accredited carbon neutral status in 2015
- University of Southern Queensland (USQ) committed to carbon neutrality by 2020
- University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) committed to carbon neutrality by 2025
- Macquarie University has committed to a 50% reduction in carbon emissions over 2012 levels by 2030, whilst growth in their operations is projected to increase by 40%
- University of Sydney has the vision to achieve a 20% carbon reduction across its investment portfolio by 2018, of which it has already achieved 40%
- Monash University is headed towards zero net emissions with no target date, currently. It is also the first University worldwide to have issued a certified climate bond to finance sustainability and clean energy projects on campus.
There are also numerous examples where Universities have implemented large-scale solar on their campuses. The University of Queensland, for instance, has installed nearly 4.5 MW of solar at its campuses, including a 1.22MW system at St Lucia (see picture below), the University of Southern Queensland has installed a 1.09 MW system at its Toowoomba Campus, and CSU is installing a 1.77 MW system at its campus in Wagga Wagga.
University of Queensland, 1.22 MW solar PV system, Photo: Stewart Gould
Universities are also looking for renewable energy opportunities off site. University of Technology Sydney (UTS) was the first organisation in Australia to directly purchase the output from a solar PV project and have this credited towards their overall energy demand by their retailer (200 kW Singleton II array, NSW). In May 2017, Monash University invited Expressions of Interest for the long-term supply of 55 GWh of electricity from an off-site renewable energy source. The power purchase agreement will also include the Large-scale Generation Certificates (LGCs).
100% Renewables recently completed the development of a long-term energy and carbon strategy with a university in Queensland which investigated innovative options for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. The carbon management plan lays out the most cost effective path to achieve carbon neutrality and contains marginal abatement cost curves at 2030 and 2040. The MAC curves display the merits of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects that will see the University make large savings on energy consumption, which can be used to fund renewable energy and carbon offset purchases in future.
The project also included a comprehensive engagement strategy, with a number of workshops and several presentations to the University’s committees to get valuable input and to make sure that the plan had the buy-in at all levels.
To find out more about the project, contact Barbara or Patrick.
 National Carbon Offset Standard