Energy Above and Below

A reflection on an energy tour of SOAS by Camilla Munkedal

On a sunny day in January, a group of SOAS students gathered in front of the SOAS main building for a Solar SOAS tour of the school’s energy system. The Bloomsbury Energy Manager, Stephen, would take us into the depths of the energy basement to gaze through the windows of the oil and gas boilers, and onto the roofs of the main building to marvel at the 114 solar panels installed as a community energy project by Solar SOAS in September 2016.

We met Stephen on the steps of SOAS, and after briefing us on the school’s energy system he led us to the lower ground floor of the main building. I had little idea myself about the location of the SOAS energy facilities, and it was with no little anticipation that we followed Stephen through an inconspicuous door and descended a staircase to a long, narrow corridor. At the end was a door leading into the heart of SOAS’ energy supply.

The lofty basement of SOAS energy facilities contains three boilers - two oil and one gas - generating 90% of SOAS energy and 50% of its heat. This energy generation is part of the Bloomsbury District heat network, which supplies energy to SOAS, UCL, Birkbeck and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In addition to the boilers, SOAS receives energy from the national grid secured through a ‘green deal’ (though not necessarily supplied with green energy). Having given us the 101 on the mechanics of powering an institution like SOAS, Stephen led us around the energy basement and explained the functions of the many installations that enable the functioning of our everyday lives at SOAS. He even pointed out a small peculiar tank, which supplies the water for all our water fountains around the school!

On account of it being a Solar SOAS tour, many questions were naturally related to the sustainability of SOAS’ energy system. Linking to the school’s sustainability efforts, the boilers in the basement are part of a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system; a highly efficient mechanism that collects waste heat from power generation and feeds it back into the school. There is still, however, a long way to go in ramping up the use of renewable energy in the Bloomsbury District Heating system.

After our tour in the energy basement we emerged from the depths and ascended onto the fourth floor of the main building into the corridor of the CISD. Once again we stopped in front of an otherwise inconspicuous door (though clearly marked ‘No Access’). Unlocked, it opened into a tiny shaft with an extremely steep flight of stairs. We proceeded to climb them one at a time, and a buzz of excitement was palpable.

Finally we emerged onto the roof of SOAS, and the 114 solar panels spread out before us dazzling in the late afternoon sun. Keeping a safe distance to the edges we each walked along the panels taking the obligatory selfies and enjoying the sun setting, inching its way closer to the horizon. Having observed the panels from all sides we then followed Stephen to the inverter, a small station that converts solar energy from direct to alternating current. The display showed the number of kilowatts generated on the roofs so far; in the grand scheme of things a very small amount, particularly as a percentage of SOAS' energy needs. This fact, considering the efforts that have gone into the installation of the panels, can feel disheartening, and it led to a conversation among us about the most efficient ways of eliminating fossil fuel dependency. There is no straightforward answer to this question - but seeing the solar panels with one’s own eyes is a reminder of the potential within society.

We must keep identifying unused roofs, and we must keep thinking creatively about how best to use them for the longest lasting benefit of our planet.

The Dark Side of a Brighter Future

By Elly Dinnadge

“Setting aside economic constraint and public objection, it is technically possible to power the world on 100% renewable sources”, according to the late David MacKay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change 2009-2014.

Without a doubt, renewable energy is on a roll. It is now cost competitive with fossil fuels in many markets, and a growing number of cities, companies, and even countries are committing to the “100% renewable” movement.

So what’re we missing? What’s not to like? (besides something beginning with T…..rump and perhaps a worrying lack of support from our own government).

Unfortunately, renewable energy is not all daisies and dandelions. Although fossil fuels are substantially more damaging, all sources of energy have some form of impact on the environment.

Let’s start with our baby. Solar. Although no greenhouse gas emissions are released during power generation, the production of solar panels is by no means zero-carbon. During the manufacturing process, harmful materials are used, which, if not recycled or properly disposed of during decommissioning, could cause environmental contamination. The panels must be transported to the site of installation (often coming from China), which adds to their carbon footprint. Construction of solar farms in rural landscapes can encroach on habitats important for biodiversity conservation, if planning is not effectively managed. This is less of an issue in urban areas where rooftops are generally available.

Hydropower is perhaps the most damaging renewable energy source. Selected sites for hydroelectric plants must be flooded, which decomposes vegetation and soil, releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Both large dams and run-of-river systems significantly alter aquatic ecosystems which affects wildlife throughout the food chain; from algae to fish and even mammals. Not to mention, the thousands or even millions of indigenous people who are forcefully displaced due to dam construction.

Wind power has also fallen under intense scrutiny due to its negative impact on bird and bat species. Collisions with turbines, meteorological towers and transmission lines have reportedly caused deaths. The National Wind Coordination Collaborative recommends several pre-development strategies which can mitigate, to a certain extent, these risks. For example, siting turbines in areas of low prey density for raptor species.  

One way of assessing the carbon footprint of different energy sources is to carry out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). This entails consideration of emissions generated from the start of the manufacturing process through to decommissioning. Turconi et al. (2013) analysed over one hundred LCA studies and found that hydroelectric dams release 11-20 kg CO₂-eq/MWh during their lifetime, wind 3-28 kg CO₂-eq/MWh and solar PV varied between 13 and 130 kg CO₂-eq/MWh, depending mainly on local conditions such as source of electricity used during manufacturing and typology of panels. This is compared to 530 kg CO₂-eq/MWh for oil and 750 kg CO₂-eq/MWh for coal.

Solar SOAS’s shiny panels are sourced from Amerisolar Ltd which is accredited with PV Cycle recognition to ensure decommissioned panels are recycled after their operating life. Amongst several other certifications (see here: ). Our panels, like most PV goods, were manufactured in China and this is something we aim to consider in any potential future projects. Yet we must owe it to her, for without China’s mass production, it is unlikely we would have been anywhere near able to afford panels at all.

For now, we’re proud of the 10.22 tons of CO₂ we save each year but we’re not quite done yet…

Join us on Dalston Solar Treasure Hunt Fri 20th November

Perfect way to have fun while having an impact! Free this Friday 2pm? Hunt solar treasure with us in London- using 10:10's new app volunteers can locate and log roofs with solar power generation potential on a national database. Time to scout out this city's clean energy future, bring friends! The winner gets a prize.... 

For details and to download the app see below event link or 10:10's website: