In 2017, Monash University announced its Net Zero Initiative, an ambitious plan to move the built environment at the university’s four Victorian campuses to zero emissions by 2030. The plan involves a number of innovative new developments and technologies, including the Monash microgrid at the University’s Clayton campus, which will help the university control when and how it uses its energy.

Monash University is on a mission to research, investigate and lead the way when it comes to energy development, production and use in the 21st century – and their ambitious efforts to date have already seen the University awarded with the United Nations 2018 Momentum for Change Award, an award which recognises the world’s most practical, scalable and replicable examples of what people, businesses, governments and industries are doing to tackle climate change.

Ariel view of the Clayton Campus

As Australia’s largest university, with more than 80,000 student enrolment across 10 faculties and over 150 buildings spread across four domestic campuses, Monash is a significant consumer of energy. However, the University recognises the need to protect the environment by innovating sustainable, new ways to power its campuses. It’s for this reason that Monash is taking ambitious action to completely transform the way it uses energy.

The Net Zero Initiative was announced in 2017, but the strategy had its beginnings in 2005, when the university was the first in Australia to set an energy reduction target of 20 per cent. Monash has since embraced its role as a champion for energy change, backed by two main drivers.

Firstly, Professor Margaret Gardner AO, the University’s President and Vice-Chancellor, is passionate about a clean energy future and taking a leadership position on achieving net zero emissions; and secondly, the University’s endeavours to research climate change, human activity and its effect on the environment.

“The University recognised that it had a leading role to play in demonstrating how you actually get to net zero emissions. Creating a sustainable future is a strategic priority for the University and is at the heart of our decision making to achieve our ambitions,” said Scott Ferraro, the Program Director for the Net Zero Initiative.

“We worked with ClimateWorks Australia to map out how we should actually go about achieving net zero,” said Mr Ferraro. “This
involved a full feasibility study, an assessment of the emission reduction opportunities and what the costs and benefits might be. We then set the target for 2030 based on that.”

The resulting Net Zero Initiative encompasses five key pillars:

  • Energy efficiency measures – LED lighting upgrades to all buildings at all Australian campuses and a Building Optimisation program to tune building mechanical plant
  • Campus electrification – replacing inefficient gas boilers with electric heat pumps to more effectively provide heating and cooling for all campuses and electrification of transport through deployment of EV chargers
  • Renewable energy – installing solar panels at all Australian campuses; and signing a long-term power purchase agreement with the Murra Warra Wind Farm in Western Victoria to buy rights to both electricity and large-scale renewable energy certificates (RECs) generated by the farm
  • Offsetting – purchasing offsets with Verified Emissions Reductions, either through the Verified Carbon Standard or the Gold Standard
  • The Monash microgrid – which will receive and store energy from various renewable energy sources and allow the University to control when and how it uses energy, reduce demand and strain on the network during peak times, and help stabilise the wider grid, making it more resilient

Together, these five areas all have the ultimate aim of achieving net zero emissions for the University’s built environment by 2030.

According to Mr Ferraro, by 2020, approximately seven per cent of the University’s on-site energy needs will be met by the rooftop solar that has been installed; but by 2030, once the full range of energy efficiency measures has been implemented, this number will rise to between 20 and 30 per cent.

The power purchase agreement with the Murra Warra Wind Farm will provide the University with the remaining renewable energy required to power its campuses.

Solar panels installed on roofing at the Clayton campus

Testing in a mini-city environment

By student numbers, the University is the largest in Australia, and the energy demands are huge. Over the last decade, its campuses have become thriving community centres, and changing student expectations have meant that libraries, amenities, and public spaces now remain open and accessible for longer than ever before.

Putting it into perspective, Monash has 2800 students living on their campuses all year round and numerous libraries that are open seven days a week – that’s a considerable amount of energy consumption. Energy use is currently pushing 682,000GJ per annum, and recent increases in electricity and gas prices have increased total energy spend.

“If you think about it, this is the perfect place to test some elements of the Net Zero Initiative,” said Mr Ferraro. “We’re a city full of people who are always learning, and pushing the boundaries, so what better place to test energy solutions than right here? In short, we’re redefining a university’s role in creating a sustainable future for us all.

“A strong emphasis is placed on transforming the University’s campuses into smart cities and creating models that can be replicated well beyond the campus boundaries, engaging our communities to help us create a more sustainable future.”

The Monash microgrid, which is a key part of the broader Smart Energy City project in partnership with Indra, and funded through ARENA, is a key component of the University’s plan to test technologies and new business models in a mini-city environment.

“The microgrid really is us trying to demonstrate what you can do from the demand side to provide services back to the grid and broader energy market to allow for greater penetration of renewables,” said Mr Ferraro.

The microgrid will be versatile enough to receive and store energy from various renewable energy sources, and it will allow the University to control when and how it uses energy, meaning it can reduce demand and strain on the network during peak times.

“We’ll be deploying Indra’s control system and developing a transactive energy market working with our academics. This will enable us to take a signal from the external market, and determine which of our assets is best placed to respond. We’ll then be able to pass the value of this service onto the end user– our buildings.

“We’re looking to provide a number of services from both an energy and power perspective, to our operations and to the grid and broader energy market. This includes peak demand management, local network services and frequency control ancillary services (FCAS). By doing this, we’re aiming to demonstrate the value proposition that precinct scale smart control of distributed energy resources can have in enabling greater penetration of renewables into the grid.”

Working with Monash

For the Net Zero team, one of the key aims of the program is to help the broader energy industry benefit from the work and research that is being carried out.

“Yes, doing this for ourselves is good, but doing it in a way that’s replicable and scalable so others can learn from it is a huge part of the Net Zero drive,” said Mr Ferraro.

“Through the funding agreements we have with ARENA and with the Victorian Government, we’ve got knowledge sharing arrangements, so we’ll be producing publicly available reports and sharing data from the microgrid work.”

Beyond this, engaging with other industry partners is a key focus for the Net Zero Initiative. The team has met with a number of companies to help them understand the process the University has been through, and help them work through the process of setting a net zero target for themselves, and understand the steps that need to be taken in order to achieve the goal.

The Clayton campus sits at the heart of the Monash Technology Precinct, which is home to CSIRO and a host of innovative manufacturing enterprises, including some of the world’s most progressive energy brands. This environment provides the critical elements for groundbreaking industry partnerships, research collaborations and the development of technology prototypes that can be locally tested.

Along with the surrounding businesses and organisations to collaborate with, the Net Zero team has access to some of the world’s leading researchers and thinkers when it comes to the future of energy on their own campus. Putting Monash’s research institutes into action, not in a lab or a small test environment, but in a living, breathing, energy-hungry campus environment, is a benefit to the University that cannot be understated.

Some of the faculties that have been involved in the Net Zero Initiative include IT, who conducted some of the initial grid feasibility studies; engineering, who with IT are developing the algorithms which will allow for orchestration and control of the Monash microgrid; and then there’s the Microgrid Electricity Market Operator (MEMO) project, which has involved researchers from the faculties of law and business, as well as behavioural economists.

The Net Zero team has also worked with government departments who are looking at installing batteries similar to what Monash University has already done; as well as working closely with other universities who have similar energy goals so that each party can learn from one another’s experiences.

“We are also engaging with people like AEMO, ARENA, the Energy Efficiency Council and the Clean Energy Council, and members of all of those organisations, to share information and knowledge with those networks,” said Mr Ferraro.

Mr Ferraro and the Net Zero team are always keen to bring interested parties into the University to see what they are doing and learn how they could potentially adopt some of the measures already employed.

“If people are interested in understanding more about what we’re doing, we welcome hearing from them. But then also if they’ve got solutions or products they want to test, we’re very open to that too,” said Mr Ferraro.

“We are a private embedded network, so we can do things that you might not be able to do in the real world. This enables us to test different technologies and business models to show the value they can provide to the broader market, and regulatory changes required to achieve this.

“Because we are a university, with a key business driver of enabling world-leading research, we can do these sorts of things and invest in projects if we can get research outcomes from them. So we’re looking for industry partners who are open to research collaboration.

“For example, Indra, who we are working with on the Smart Energy City project, have contributed funding and resources to help undertake research, and have also opened up their platform, which we will ultimately both benefit from.”

According to Mr Ferraro, while the University obviously has its own reasons for undertaking the Net Zero Initiative, unless it has applications in the outside world, it’s missing the point.

“We want to be an enterprising university that has impact on the world and is developing real solutions, and that is a key component of what this initiative is trying to achieve,” said Mr Ferraro.

Where to from here?

Elements of the Monash microgrid

While the Net Zero team has a very clear mandate for where they need to be by 2030, and the steps they need to take in order to get there, Mr Ferraro also sees a range of further applications for the initiative.

“Net Zero is really about showcasing how can you get to zero emissions, and answering questions like what’s it going to cost you? How fast can you do it? How can you speed it up? What changes in regulations are needed to make it happen elsewhere?” said Mr Ferraro.

“So we’re looking at developing a broader research program and a translation program where we take what we learn here, and help others do the same thing. There are currently conversations underway with Monash’s Sustainable Development Institute and Monash Energy Materials and Systems Institute, as well as bodies like ClimateWorks, about how we can take our learnings and help others, both locally and internationally, to meet the sustainable development challenges facing Australia, the region and the

“We’re also looking at how we can take net zero principles to developing countries, where cities are being built from scratch, and provide advice on how this can be done in a way that’s aligned with a net zero approach.”

Looking specifically at the Monash microgrid and the Smart Energy City project, the University is looking to build smart control systems, and a transactive energy market at the city-scale level through the Net Zero Initiative – but the next steps will be to set up the operational and business models to teach other organisations about how they can do the same thing.

“We want to prove out the concept so others can take it and run with it – test if it’s a profitable business model that other people want to take and deploy,” said Mr Ferraro.

With more than a decade on the clock ahead of the Net Zero deadline, teams of dedicated researchers across the University, and a passion for sustainability that’s coming directly from the top, the potential impacts this initiative will have on the wider energy industry are huge.

According to Mr Ferraro, the broader purpose of this project – and indeed a university – is to drive change, and through Net Zero, it’s safe to say Monash University is well on the way to achieving this.

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