Rob Lord

14 April 2010 – There could be light at the end of the tunnel for cogeneration projects seeking co-operation from energy agencies. In a victory for precinct-style power generation, a proposed shared cogeneration project between The University of Queensland and the Royal Brisbane Hospital has received support from gas suppliers.

It was very much an industry-driven victory. After an initial knock-back by gas suppliers to support the project, sustainability consultants from Cundall, armed themselves with extensive technical data to back their case. But it took some political nous as well – this time they bypassed the technical people and went straight to the top.

Cundall’s Brisbane head, Rob Lord, told The Fifth Estate the decision by the gas authority to fund the necessary infrastructure to supply gas to the shared power plant was a sign of a shift in attitudes.

“It is a kind of awakening for these authorities. They are bureaucracies and are very focused on risk. What we want is for them to be not only conscious of the risk but also the opportunities of cogeneration and shared energy schemes,” says Lord.

“When the gas company was first approached they said it couldn’t be done. But when we got back to the upper echelons of the company with all the mechanical, hydraulic and sustainability information they were very positive about the opportunities and they told their technical people they wanted it to happen.”

With cogeneration, and trigeneration, buildings can generate their own power from gas-fired generators, reduce their reliance on the electricity grid and use waste heat to help cool and heat a building. But resistance from energy agencies to these plants putting energy back into the grid or to providing the necessary infrastructure for projects has been a major disincentive for developers and building owners considering the technology (see our story on this www.thefifthestate.com.au/archives/4700).

Royal Brisbane Hospital

Individual buildings are faced with high cost of installation and the problem of disposing of excess energy from the plant. A shared cogeneration plant allows greater utilisation of both capital costs and generated power.

The Queensland project has come about because both the hospital and the university are upgrading their facilities and reviewing their energy consumption. As they are located next to one another the concept of shared energy generation is a logical one.

The financial argument alone is compelling, says Lord, with Queensland Health currently spending $34 million each year in power bills. Queensland University is aiming for 50 per cent lower energy consumption than minimum compliance by 2020.

The project benefits all parties. By sharing the cogeneration plant, the university gets greener energy and greater redundancy of its equipment by relying on hospital infrastructure and the hospital has access to low carbon water and energy. The gas company reduces its infrastructure costs, only having to run one pipe across town instead of two for a service that will run 24/7.

“The university and hospital have different operational needs, with their peak usage occurring at different times. This means the plant can be fully utilised rather than just operating at two thirds of its capacity, particularly if it was only for the university. This way everybody gets much greater value out of the assets,” says Lord.

The project has received technical go ahead – now it is just a matter of getting funding approval from the boards of both institutions and sorting out what proportion will be paid by each.

Rob Lord believes the success with the gas company is a sign of progress in the market. Awareness of sustainability and the economic as well as environmental benefits is growing across all sectors. Cundall is seeing this in the building and construction industry but it is also apparent at the institutional level.

The University of Queensland is a case in point.

“Two years ago the university’s mantra was ‘people do research in our building not on our buildings’. Now it is creating a new Advanced Engineering Building which will be part of its curriculum,” says Lord.

The new building will not only be highly sustainable, it will be a teaching tool  with live data collected on all aspects of its operation.

“When you consider that the university processes 100 engineering graduates every year, all of those graduates practice for around 40 years and the building will last around 50 years, that represents 200 millennia of practice. That’s an enormous amount of carbon savings from one building,” says Lord.

The new Advanced Engineering Building is expected to be completed by 2012.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au