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.