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With industry discussion continuing to increase around the topic of energy usage, the current high costs are combining with increased urgency to reduce carbon emissions, resulting in a number of FM providers reporting their highest number of enquiries for renewable energy installations.

One of the driving factors is that return on investment times are being significantly reduced, providing further support for financial investment. An example of the possibilities available is provided by the partnership between Monmouthshire Borough Council and SSE Energy Solutions, which has seen 22 of its buildings enjoy significant reductions in carbon emissions and energy consumption.

SSE Smart Energy Systems sector director Tunde Olaoye says that this has enabled the council to take a major step towards achieving the first phase of its net zero carbon emissions across the county.

“Beginning in October 2019 we began to work with Monmouthshire Borough Council to agree the programme of decarbonisation and payback times,” he continues. “It was financed by a mixture of the Salix Finance energy efficiency loan, the council and blended finance and the works included installations and works for schools, offices and community hubs throughout the county.”

The scale of the project quickly becomes clear when he explains his company’s efforts to improve the operation of the Chepstow Leisure Centre.

“Swimming pools are often high consumers of energy and we created a digital twin of the leisure centre to see how its running would be affected by the improvements,” he continues. “We guarantee the savings based on 31 degrees flow temperature and 29 degrees [water temperature], so any deviation will affect that but ultimately it’s the council’s decision.”

He further explains the need to balance the comfort of leisure centre staff and customers with the need to reduce energy costs and the company’s efforts have resulted in significant savings. Its investigations revealed a number of issues that many readers will be familiar with, including the discovery that a combined heat and power (CHP) boiler had been switched off several years before the SSE contract had begun.

Using the digital twin to prove its effectiveness, SSE designed an updated system that included the installation of a new air handling unit (AHU) to ensure improved indoor air quality by including more fresh air and reducing interior condensation levels. “Because the new unit was so much higher, we had to install it outside,” he continues.

The works were in addition to many others on the site but justified by the results of the digital twin, with the extra time required resulting in considerations for some “quick wins” during later stages of the project.

Having received planning permission, a new structure was built on the roof of the leisure centre, including sound attenuation, and the new AHU was installed by using a crane to lift it onto the building. It was then necessary to reconfigure all the ductwork serving the swimming pool, but Mr Olaoye says there have been no complaints about noise and the savings achieved shows these efforts to have been entirely worthwhile.

The swimming pool also previously relied on two atmospheric boilers for heating, which were shown to be performing inefficiently in supplying the base load of around 20kW. “Our solution was to specify a micro CHP with freestanding high-efficiency boilers,” says Mr Olaoye.

He further states that although the CHP unit consumes gas, it provides high levels of efficiency and produces much less carbon than the previous system. Air-source heat pumps were considered, but the cost of these compared with the savings provided by the CHP unit ultimately showed this to be the most effective investment.

“You can compare CHP versus a low-temperature heat pump, and you could argue that they’re close to each other in terms of performance. CHP will generate a lot of electricity by using gas and you’ll get a good saving but have a slightly higher carbon footprint, while with a low-temperature heat pump with a COP of around three, you’ve got to think of the electricity you’re still paying for and you’ll need to have the right electrical capacity within a very well-designed system,” he explains.

“I think there’s still a place for some micro CHPs, but if people think ‘I have to get to net zero by 2030 and need to get rid of all CHPs’, they’ll miss out on some major savings, especially in something like a leisure centre while gas is something like 7p KWh versus electricity, which is around 30p.”

Mr Olaoye further states that the savings delivered by a correctly designed CHP system can then be used to upgrade pools or invested in renewal energy options in the future.

“I think many people would be better off preparing to invest in heat pumps or similar in another 10 years, in many cases, rather than saying ‘I want to hit net zero now’,” he continues. “In the meantime, you can invest in upgrading the building, improving flow temperatures and all the things that reduce energy use, and then look to invest in an air-source heat pump when you’ve got the system set up properly and have also balanced the books.”

Adopting this method will additionally avoid the issue of installing heat pumps before the building or its systems are properly prepared, which can prove costly from both energy usage and carbon footprint perspectives.

He further explains that although the leisure centre continues to use gas boilers, these are now  high-efficiency condensing models that use matrix burners with a “very good turndown ratio” and are a significant improvement on the previous models. “There is a time and place to move to heat pumps but I would urge people to err on the side of caution and perhaps consider bivalent systems, where you match very  high-efficiency boilers for the peak demand with the use of heat pumps for the base load.”

This method will avoid having to specify heat pumps or CHP units that are larger and more costly, which may then also require electrical and other upgrades and further reduce any savings.

For the Chepstow Leisure Centre, Mr Olaoye states that the use of 3D modelling proved essential to ensure that everything would fit into the “very tight space” available within the existing plant room, saving further expense by avoiding additional works. It was also used to determine work schedules and avoid major disruptions in service.

“It was a complex process but by using 3D modelling and BIM, we were able to understand how we do that and developed prefabricated components that we could change over quickly. We also then looked at low flow showers from a company called Kelder, which have a small microprocessor inside that pumps air that mixes with water,” he says.

Standard showers will typically use between 6l and 8l of water per minute, compared with the 4l per minute used by the new models. This reduces hot water usage without detracting from the user experience, says Mr Olaoye.

The extensive list of works for the Chepstow school and leisure centre  represents a small percentage of the overall project, with many more hurdles overcome, particularly with achieving planning permission on several of the 22 sites. However, the positive and helpful attitude of the client proved to be another significant factor in achieving the best outcomes.

An example of the above is the fitting of solar PV panels on  carports at some sites, which were subject to the SuDS Standards of stormwater management. This is a particularly important issue for Wales, with many areas designated as being at risk of flooding.

“We had around two to three months of working with the SuDS consultant and the local authority to look at how we managed the run-off of storm water,” Mr Olaoye explains. The solution agreed upon involved the building of large planters alongside the car ports to take the water from the gutters and slow the flow down to reduce the impact on drainage systems.

“You don’t have SuDS in England but it shows how important it is to consider all the angles when you start to upgrade buildings and systems,” he continues. “Also with the carports, it’s important to do mock-ups and even visit the sites with a tape measure to show everyone how high they’ll be and make sure there’s enough clearance or that they’ll be used by the right type of vehicles.”

Having successfully completed phase one of the upgrade of the 22 council facilities, the company is now engaged with and considering additional works that will be necessary in future, with the completion of phase four signalling the final stage. One of the areas of focus will include the installation of more LED lighting, which will combine with the PV solar panels on 10 buildings to deliver savings of approximately £90,000 per year over the next eight years.

Due to the high level of complexity of various aspects of phase one, the installation of LED lighting is considered to be a “quick win” that provides savings and will be much easier to install than the upgrades at Chepstow Leisure Centre, for example.

“We’re also looking at the BMS systems using the smart buildings functionality in our company with our energy management centre in Glasgow. So when we upgrade buildings, we put a new BMS in, optimise the set point and connect it to the energy management centre and provide a  high-level view to allow the local authority to look at their different sites and really understand the capability of their BMS.

“They can connect with any device and we’re continuing to look at how we can work with the client and improve that remote delivery aspect,” says Mr Olaoye.

Future phases of the project will also include the upgrade of the fabric of the buildings, reducing the need for heating and cooling in the drive to achieve the client’s carbon reduction ambitions. Once these are complete, further considerations will be given to the installation of renewable energy systems.

“We’re aiming to identify the next 10 buildings to work on and we’re continuing to work with the council to discuss additional aspects such as electric vehicle charging hubs,” he continues.

Further discussions are additionally continuing to assist the council with the decarbonisation of all its estate, which will cover all the aspects described earlier and include considerations for further improvement of existing systems. An example of this includes the analysis of existing solar PV systems, which will consider whether these can be further extended.

“The council has big ambitions to reduce carbon emissions in all areas, so we’re looking at increasing the use of ground solar. The council has a lot of land and wants to use it to generate power wherever it can.

“In the best outcome, you can achieve a double benefit by generating income and savings through these renewable systems that can then be reinvested to decarbonise more buildings.” Mr Olaoye expects the results of the various ongoing surveys to be available in the next few months. These results will then be used to progress considerations for the next phases of the decarbonisation project.

Funding for future works will continue to be a mix of Salix Finance loans, combined with revenue from the borough council and topped up by the SSE Net Zero Assimilation Plan where necessary, which is a £25bn fund designed for use over the next 10 years to deliver a variety of low and zero carbon initiatives.

“The fund means we can support local authorities in different regions and bring investment to build new heat networks, energy generation and efficiency schemes, etc, and because we have our balance sheet funding, we don’t need to have more private investment. Combined with our technical expertise this means we can deliver the whole package,” he says.