Conversion from steam to hot-water heating on campus will increase energy efficiency and assist the University in meeting its goals for reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As part of its continued work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 42 percent below 2007 levels by 2020, Brown University will embark on a three-year, $24 million project to increase energy efficiency across campus by replacing its central heating system with one that will generate heat using hot water instead of steam.

“When this project is complete, we will go a long way toward our 42 percent reduction goal,” said Christopher Powell, assistant vice president for sustainable energy and environmental initiatives. “Taking this approach signals that sustainability is a University priority, and Brown is showing significant leadership on this issue — proving that even in a cold climate, large institutions can operate much more efficiently with strategic investments.”

Brown’s 50-year-old steam heating system was due for replacement already, a project that would have cost the University approximately $17 million even with little upgrade in efficiency. Powell says the conversion to a medium-temperature hot water system will markedly increase the thermal efficiency of campus while creating the building blocks for future heat recovery and the use of low-carbon energy sources.

“The reality is that if we had just spent that $17 million, we would simply be implementing old technology,” Powell said. “By spending an additional $7 million, we expect to save more than $1 million in energy costs each year, based upon current utility costs, and help reach our important greenhouse emissions goals.”

Those savings will come in the form of reduced heating costs as well as energy incentives from National Grid, Rhode Island’s natural gas and electricity company.

The thermal efficiency project builds on a series of initiatives led by the Office of Sustainable Energy and Environmental Initiatives after the University launched its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction plan in 2008. In the years since, Brown has decreased its energy-related carbon footprint by 27.4 percent.

This reduction has been accomplished by switching from carbon-intensive No. 6 fuel oil to natural gas at the central heating plant, along with energy efficiency investments across campus including lighting upgrades, laboratory ventilation optimization, insulation repairs and cooling system performance optimization. Since 2008, Brown has invested approximately $32 million in energy efficiency initiatives, which have resulted in annual savings of more than $5 million in energy expenses.

Additionally, Brown’s design and construction staff have implemented high-energy-performance design goals for all new construction, major renovations and acquired facilities on campus. This includes a minimum certification of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver and energy use standards that exceed building code by a minimum of 25 percent.

Not only will the conversion to hot water further decrease Brown’s energy consumption by approximately 11 percent, it will enable the future implementation of other efficiency measures such as recovery systems in which emitted heat is captured and reused, Powell said. In addition, a hot water system, unlike a steam-based one, could potentially be supplied by high-tech heating and cooling technology, which in turn could be powered by non-fossil fuel energy sources such as solar, wind or geothermal.

That possibility is the most important long-term advantage of a conversion from steam to hot water, said Stephen Porder, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and fellow at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

“This is a great first step for Brown, but it’s not the final one,” Porder said. “Essentially, converting to a hot water system opens up options for potentially getting our campus emissions down to zero.”

Porder is also the co-chair of the Sustainability Planning Study Committee, which has been charged with developing a process for creating new University greenhouse gas emissions goals once the existing goals have been achieved. He said that Brown’s work to reduce emissions is playing a small but important role in the larger worldwide effort to halt global warming.

“In order to avoid catastrophic climate change, worldwide greenhouse emissions need to be at net zero by the middle of this century,” Porder said. “At Brown, we are opening up a pathway to move beyond our goals of 2020 and position the University as a leader, not just among our peers, but also as a leader in confronting climate change, the biggest issue that we face as a global community in the 21st century.”

With funding for the project approved by the Corporation of Brown University’s Budget and Finance Committee last month, the conversion work will begin in the current academic year with a target completion date of October 2020.