In our quarterly series of Big Picture articles, large customers give their verdict on utilities. This week, Kathy Oxtoby talks to Coventry University.

For an expanding university like Coventry, managing the utility needs of the many sites it owns is a challenge. Coventry University occupies just over one-third of the city centre, including 21 academic buildings, a library, a student union building, three residential halls and 40 residential houses, and has a portfolio of private houses it rents out. Coventry University Enterprises – the commercial wing of the university – incorporates a technology park and a conference centre.

Elise Smithson, deputy director, environment and low impact building centre, says the university has a “strong interest” in utilities management and has made reducing its carbon footprint a priority. “We have a strategy called Grand Challenges – these are global and sustainable research interests the university supports,” she says. “This includes having a low-carbon management plan where we are trying to reduce our carbon footprint by 35 per cent by 2015.”

One of the challenges the university’s estate department faces in meeting this target is how to encourage people to save energy and reduce their carbon footprint when they are not responsible for paying utility bills. “We need to work out ways to get students living in university accommodation to get on board with the need to save energy,” says Selina Fletcher, environmental sustainability officer.

To help achieve this, the university is running a student project that involves them taking part in computer games that look at different energy saving challenges – such as how to make a cup of tea using the least energy possible.

The university also encourages staff to take steps to lower the university’s carbon footprint. It runs a competition between academic buildings where every month it issues details of how much electricity has been consumed by each, and at the end of the year how much each has cost in energy terms. “Saving energy has become a matter of pride for individual departments and it looks bad across the campus if you score poorly,” says Gideon Howell, carbon reduction officer.

Having invested in energy efficiency – for example, installing six combined heat and power units – and given its carbon management plan, Smithson believes the university is “an aware user consumer when it comes to how it wants to manage its utilities”. The university and Coventry University Enterprises currently receive electricity and gas through 258 supply points. Monthly billing as standard from suppliers would be helpful, says Howell.

“At the moment, billing is monthly for large supplies, but for some of our domestic supplies – such as the many houses we own and rent out for students – bills are quarterly. There seem to be some ridiculous rules around why we have to have these entrenched billing periods, and it would be helpful if these smaller supplies could be billed on a monthly basis.”

The university would also value efforts by utilities to bill accurately so they can reduce time spent constantly checking and carrying out bill validation, Howell says. Meter readings are not carried out as frequently as the university would like. “We ­often rely on our readings but we would like to work with utilities to introduce automatic meter readings, and for meters to be recalibrated more regularly to help us reduce our energy consumption and give us quality data to know how much has been used,” he says.

Also on the university’s wishlist for better utility services is that more online information should be available to improve staff access to billing data.

Regarding its water demands, Smithson explains that the university faces similar issues to the local council, such as how to install water tanks in a congested area in the city centre, which includes Coventry Cathedral. The university is looking at sustainable urban drainage and how to retrofit grey water and reuse systems in that environment. “In an ideal world, we want to use less water – although we’re a fairly low consumer of water already because we don’t have high volume water processes,” she says. Smithson adds that the university is looking to refurbish its kitchen and toilets to install low water technologies.

But the university’s gas and electricity needs remain a priority. It would like to see price stability and manageable prices from its utilities, she says. “Utilities are volatile markets, so it’s difficult working with them in terms of knowing what is a good contract length. Like every one else, we need more independence from volatility regarding the supply of energy and its cost.

“Given this volatility, we don’t want to buy expensive utilities because we don’t know if prices are going up or down. So our procurement policy is all about trying to manage the risk around the price of energy and those are quite difficult conversations to ask utilities because no one has a crystal ball,” says Smithson.

Looking ahead, Howell says the university is developing sustainable procurement policies from suppliers who have a low-carbon strategy. But he is concerned that while energy companies were legally obliged to issue supplier statements about their low-carbon commitment by March 2011, the quality of statements the university received was variable.

Howell also fears that suppliers are prioritising supplying plant or equipment – such as insulation – to reduce energy, when they should be concentrating on their core business. “The core business is to supply energy, so it would be helpful if they prioritised sending accurate bills, being more flexible about billing periods, and giving user-friendly access to data online.”

Kathy Oxtoby is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in Utility Week’s print edition of 16 March 2012.

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