Watch your Watts!

Energy consumption on campus has been an issue for the past few years, because we have been consuming an increasing amount of electricity despite the decreasing student population. However, you will be happy to know that things are changing! The current situation is that we now produce 0.45% of our own electricity! This is thanks to the 186 solar panels and 4 inverters that were installed in April which cover 304.11 sq m*.

The university is taking efforts to become more environmentally friendly in recent years with initiatives such as the community garden and composting. UNMC has also installed the solar panels to the tune of RM 300 000 (rounded up). This will be recouped in a maximum of 11 years, capital and maintenance costs (RM 2000 per annum)* included, as calculated by Engineering intern Bhavani Chinnathambi who worked on them during the 2017 summer break.

The solar panels produce a monthly average of 4.91MWh*. However this pales in comparison to the amount of electricity the university consumes – in March, it was 1101.36 MWh. Using these averages, the university is estimated to save about RM 2586.19 per month.

In the process of construction (Source: UNMC Environment Official FB page)

Bhavani also calculated that 31.05 tons of CO2 per year is saved by producing this small amount of clean energy for the campus to use. This is the equivalent of saving 31 trees that hypothetically would have been cut and burned for energy. She chose 15 year old palm oil trees for standardisation, to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide stored within, which is approximately 1.02 tons per tree. When asked on why palm oil trees,

“I looked around campus and everything I saw, was palm oil trees.” (duh)

The university had been dabbling with the idea of installing solar panels since 4 years ago. At that time the idea proved unfeasible due to costs and was shelved. Subsequently when Mr Nicholas Ching, the Campus Services director, was hired by the University, he had another look at this idea. He thought if the panels could be installed on the covered walkways instead, that might save costs and thus the project was opened for tender. Finally the University settled on the company with a competitive bid and interesting technology that involved embedding the solar panels into glass.

A beaming Mr Ching next to his solar panel roof

The solar panels operate at 16% efficiency (i.e. when there are 100 units of sunlight, the solar panels can capture 16 units). They are supposed to be durable with a 25 year long life span. In otherwards the efficiency of the panels should not drop below roughly 13% in that period or the company is obliged to replace the panels.

While the solar panels might be a bit of an eyesore at the amphitheatre, there were no alternatives. First of all, putting them on roof tops would be more expensive because the roofs have to be reinforced. If placed anywhere else on the campus, it would render prime land unusable. Therefore by process of elimination, a roofing that helps provide shade at the amphitheatre and the covered walkways (which would not need reinforcement) were the best bets according to Mr Ching.

According to Dr Svenja Hanson, the Chair of the Environment Committee, who also runs the Sustainability in Action NAA module, this was a good use of the funds for helping to green the campus’ electricity consumption for several reasons. Firstly, retrofitting our campus’ centralised air conditioning systems would require a much larger investment. On top of that, a decentralised air conditioning system may not necessarily save more money because there would be issues with people not switching off the air con when it is not in use. However there are some arguments to be made against the centralised system which means that when there is an event in the Trent building, the air conditioning in block B and C are switched on too because they are connected.

Dr Svenja also helps out the Nature Club in her spare time. She should be known as the Green Woman on campus! (Source: UNMC Nature Club Official FB page)

Secondly, efforts to change people’s behaviours such as the annual Earth Hour events may be insufficient. We looked at the electricity consumption records at that time – there is no drop in the wattage consumed during Earth Hour as compared to the same time on other Fridays in the month. Perhaps because the air-conditioners are not switched off? Or because the concert and food stalls consume too much electricity? However, whether all attempts to change behaviour on campus are really futile, is still up to debate because there is insufficient data to determine its success or lack of thereof.

In addition to the solar panels, Mr Ching has also been trying to reduce energy consumption in other ways. If you’re observant, you would have noticed that some of the lights around campus seem to be half working. This is because they have been delamping them by partially unscrewing the light bulbs. Mr Ching claims that they have delamped approximately 3000 light fittings around campus.

Maybe the uni is a cheapskate, maybe they’re trying to save energy! 😀 (Source: UNMC student FB page)

On top of that, Mr Ching has been playing around with the air-cons, switching some of them on at certain times only. Students might have noticed that they’ve been freezing less at some places on campus (orange building, I got my eye on you). These initiatives might have been successful as we have noticed a drastic drop in electricity consumption in the past few months. However it is still too soon to conclusively say if these measures have been a success.

While there have been efforts to move in the right direction and the university should be lauded for this, there is much more that could be done. For example, our newest F4 building could have been built to be cooler and more energy efficient just like the NUS Ventus building. Our neighbouring Heriott-Watt University has a Green Building Index rating. Perhaps that could be a goal for future buildings? Automatic lights are insufficient to make a dent in the energy consumed. University Putra Malaysia, a little bit closer to home, is one of Asia’s Greenest campuses – there is a lot we can learn from them as well.

A screenshot of our environmental principle from the UNMC 2013 – 2020 Strategic Roadmap, pg 8

The university prides itself on having Leadership in Environmental Sustainability as one of our guiding principles. However green we may be ‘striving’ to be, ‘leadership’ we are not.

This follows on to my subsequent suggestions:

Firstly there needs to be more concrete methods of data collection as both Mr Ching and Dr Hanson also call for, to ascertain the effectiveness of current intiatives. Secondly, there should be an environmental officer on campus. After the last one left a few years back, there has been no replacement. (According to Mr Ching the position is still open, however I could not find it on the University’s Employment Opportunities page.) Mr Ching and Dr Hanson say that this is because the salary offered is too low to attract suitable candidates. Such a person would manage all the environmental initiatives such as the solar panels, community garden, composting etc. He or she would be able to record, monitor and quantify the results and be able to make useful and informed recommendations.

Our Strategic Roadmap also calls for the development of a Carbon Reduction Plan by 2014 (pg 43) that is supposed to fall under the portfolio of the Environmental Committee. However I have yet to lay eyes on such a plan. There are also suggestions made in there to promote and enhance the environmental agenda in UNMC’s teaching and research. While there are steps taken in this area, more could always be done with perhaps more deliberate attempts made to embed it in the teaching.

Our sister campus UNUK has done amazing things and won multiple awards for being green. UNMC can do more to emulate her and truly be a leader in environmental sustainability by addressing our energy usage.


*Data taken from Environment Progress Report August 2017

Featured image of the solar panels installed around campus (Source: UNMC Environment Official FB page)

Written by Lhavanya Dharmalingam


"They say that great minds think alike, but also fools seldom differ"

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