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Universities around Australia are taking a leadership position when it comes to how they source their energy needs and it’s no different at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) in Sippy Downs, Queensland.

The University has adopted an ambitious target of becoming carbon neutral by 2025 and in order to do this they recognised that innovative, forward-thinking solutions were needed. Enter the water battery – a unique solution that highlights the fact that when it comes to energy storage, lithium batteries are not the only solution.

The University of the Sunshine Coast’s (USC) journey towards carbon neutrality began approximately five years ago as an initiative of a Sustainability Management Committee. It was tasked with the goal of making USC a carbon neutral university and achieving proper certification across all of the University’s seven campuses.

Led by Dennis Frost, USC’s Manager of Energy and Infrastructure, and Iona Beauly, USC’s Director, Asset Management Services, work commenced on a comprehensive carbon abatement management plan, analysing sources of electricity use and emissions.

This work followed an established method that looked at direct and indirect sources of emissions, and the boundaries USC would draw, among many other things.

From this work, USC determined the most significant source of energy consumption on its campuses is the cooling of their buildings – hardly a surprise for a university based in Queensland – so naturally, this was the first thing the University investigated when it came to cleaning up the energy being sourced.

USC then developed a carbon abatement cost model, looking at all the potential actions that could be taken to reduce the grid electricity used in the cooling of its buildings. For each of these actions they then looked at the average cost per tonne of emissions.

USC’s building cooling systems run on chilled water; and by undertaking this optimisation research, a natural starting point was to invest in reducing the energy required to chill said water.

The best path forward

Once the target focus area was identified, USC began working closely with environmental solutions provider Veolia to determine the best path forward.

“There was a lot of really detailed, technical analysis of what specifically we would build, how we would do it, and how quickly it would pay itself off,” said Dr Graham Ashford, Deputy Head of USC’s School of Science and Engineering.

“That’s where the partnership with Veolia has been so innovative in my mind. Together, we developed the solution to install solar PV across the University and use the energy from this PV to chill the water; essentially turning our water tanks into thermal batteries.”

“It’s been a really great process to be involved in over the last couple of years, to see how it’s progressed and come to fruition.”

Together, USC and Veolia developed a system involving 2.1MW of solar PV, which produces enough energy to cool 4.5ML of water, meaning this water effectively acts as an 8MW battery.

It is expected that the water battery project will reduce the campus’s grid electricity use by 40 per cent and lead to an estimated $100 million saving over the 25-year life of the project.

According to Dr Ashford, the decision to develop the water battery, as opposed to turning to a traditional storage method such as lithium-ion batteries came down to one simple factor – cost.

“What I liked about this process was that we were pragmatic about it,” said Dr Ashford. “We were looking for the lowest cost way that we could reduce emissions from our cooling operations, purely because the less money we spent here, the more money we would have for other abatement initiatives.”

Life expectancy and degradation of the different storage options were also key factors influencing the improved cost outcomes of the thermal battery option.

While traditional electrical batteries will degrade over ten to 15 years, the solution developed by USC and Veolia will last 40 years – and not degrade at all.

Another benefit of the thermal battery option relates to the nature of when USC uses its electricity.

“When we looked at the thermal battery option, we saw that the solar PV could chill our water during the day, and because it would remain cool overnight, the economics and practicality of the thermal battery meant it came out clearly as the superior option,” noted Dr Ashford.

A meeting of the minds

According to Angela Cooney, Veolia’s Sustainable Solutions Manager for Energy, the company and the University share a number of the same values, which has provided the two organisations with a solid base from which to build their business relationship.

“We have so many aligned values, especially in relation to sustainability and social responsibility,” said Ms Cooney. “It’s USC’s project, but because we’re both working on something we are genuinely passionate about, it’s quite symbiotic from that perspective.”

Andrew Darr, Veolia’s Regional Queensland Energy Services Manager, couldn’t agree more.

“Getting to a point where you’ve got alignment between the two organisations’ cultures to work together, and create something new, is extremely important. You need to have that true and open and honest dialogue to work through the challenges.”

And now, with a solid foundation established, USC and Veolia plan to continue working together to bring about more energy initiatives to the University.

“There’s huge things there in the pipeline, and some really cool, innovative solutions,” said Mr Darr.

“USC are also very keen to explore living lab environments, involving students with the work being done with the water battery and other projects we’re working on – it gives the University a competitive edge in terms of the learning that they can offer their students, while also helping to achieve their carbon abatement goals.”

With the water battery project, USC is at the beginning of its journey towards carbon neutrality, and what is set to be a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Veolia.  

This partner content is brought to you by The University of the Sunshine Coast. For more information, visit https://www.usc.edu.au/.

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