Sustainability and the Campus of the Future

Technology is helping universities to become role models for sustainability.

Siemens recently published a 68-page report “Campus of the Future,” which describes the technology that’s helping colleges and universities create greener, healthier, safer and more sustainable campuses. I spent three decades in higher education; when I left in 2018, the term “sustainability” was just starting to enter into that college’s vocabulary. Much has happened in two years, so let’s check out some of the innovations that are turning universities into role models for sustainability.

Renewable Energy

Many college campuses have the ability to generate their own electricity, often in the form of a combined heat and power (CHP) cogeneration (cogen) setup, where a gas boiler creates steam to heat the campus buildings, with some of the steam diverted to an electrical turbine. On the campus where I taught, the turbines only ran as emergency backup power, as it wasn’t cost-effective to burn gas for electricity. These days, campuses are moving to green energy, and in many cases, without investing any capital. Power purchase agreements (PPAs) allow colleges to reduce their carbon footprint, increase green visibility, and save money on utility bills.

For example, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a research unit of Columbia University, entered into a PPA with AES Distributed Energy. As part of the deal, AES installed a 5.8MW solar array—enough to cover 75 percent of the campus’s electricity needs—at no cost to the university. Columbia pays EAS for the power at a significant discount compared to market utility rates, saving the institution up to $200,000 a year in energy costs. Moreover, the solar array helps the university reach its goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 35 percent over a three-year period and establish itself as a role model in sustainability. 

Solar field powering the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Image courtesy of Columbia University.

Solar field powering the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. (Image courtesy of Columbia University.)

Across the pond, the UK’s Keele University is going the extra kilometer by serving as a green energy demonstration site. With more than 10,000 students and 350 buildings, the campus is effectively a small city located about 80km (50mi) from Liverpool. As part of the university’s plan to be carbon-neutral by 2030, Keele’s Smart Energy Network Demonstrator (SEND) turns the campus into a green energy research site and living laboratory that includes state-of-the-art building control systems, smart meters, electric vehicle (EV) chargers and microgrid management software. Coming online in 2021 will be a pair of wind turbines producing 1.8MW, a 5.5MW solar farm and a 1MW battery for energy storage.

Low carbon energy generation. Image courtesy of Keele University.

Low carbon energy generation. (Image courtesy of Keele University.)

To ensure a healthy supply of sustainability researchers and practitioners, the university will soon be rolling out a master’s program in Smart Energy Management, which covers topics such as climate science, computer programming, Internet of Things (IoT), smart grid technology, renewable energy, information management, research, consultancy and sustainability. The hands-on curriculum makes full use of the campus’s living laboratory and includes an internship or capstone project, assuring that students will be job ready upon graduation.


The Algonquin Center for Construction Excellence (ACCE) is a LEED Platinum-certified building that houses Algonquin College’s building construction programs, which incorporate sustainable design practices, BIM and energy management. Another living laboratory, the ACCE sports a green roof, a solar array, a five-story bio wall, ample daylighting, EV charging stations, an energy storage system and microgrid management software that controls and monitors energy production and consumption throughout the building. The facility also includes a rainwater collection system that provides nonpotable water for toilet flushing and green roof irrigation, as well as a solar water heating system. The building aligns with the college’s goal of being carbon-neutral by 2042, and its energy production and management technology result in a savings of more than $3 million a year in energy costs.

Another building innovation common across many campuses is the building management system that monitors room occupancy to save costs on heating, cooling and lighting. Many of them integrate with room scheduling software for more robust operation. On the heating and cooling side, ground-source heat pumps (also known as geothermal heating/cooling), chilled beam cooling and heat exchangers can save enough energy to pay for themselves in less than a decade.


University campuses use a variety of mobility devices, including fleet vehicles, groundskeeping equipment, bike shares and shuttles. Electrifying the powered vehicles is becoming common practice, but some schools, like the University at Buffalo (UB), are looking into autonomous vehicles (AVs) for campus shuttles. Here’s UB’s Olli, an AV that’s made primarily from 3D-printed parts:

Capable of carrying eight passengers, Olli’s dual 60kW hub motors and 18kWh battery give it a top speed of 40 km/h (25 mph) and a range of about 48km (30mi). The vehicle can be recharged in two hours. Essentially a long-term beta test, the UB project is intended to put Olli through a series of day-to-day operations, giving passengers a feel for AVs and providing its maker, Local Motors, with feedback about its performance. The effort is sponsored by UB and the State of New York, with plans to eventually put Olli on city streets.

Some campuses are experimenting with apps that summon a shuttle or locate and reserve shared bikes (including ebikes). Disabled users can find shuttles with wheelchair access, and some universities offer wayfinding apps for visually impaired people. Security is enhanced by lighted walking/biking paths, security cameras, and apps that identify safe walking routes at night and discreetly contact campus police in an emergency.

With a blend of research, practice and fiscal responsibility, colleges and universities are leading the way to a sustainable future.

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