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Cost of living: Power struggles

Image: Grace Gay for Research Professional News

Universities and research institutes are increasingly counting the cost of the energy crisis

Spread across two sprawling sites in Sutton and London, the Institute of Cancer Research is on the frontline of the fight against one of the world’s biggest killers.

Battles against the disease take place there daily in multimillion-pound laboratories that offer researchers medical imaging equipment, microscopy facilities and supercomputers to test out theories and develop new therapies to beat back cancer’s advance.

Their efforts pay off. Recent breakthroughs include the discovery of “dark matter” within tumours that controls genes—which could lead to more tailored treatments as it becomes possible to predict the behaviour of cancer cells—and a genetically modified herpes virus that the ICR said delivered “a one-two punch against tumours” during trials.

But these laboratories consume significant amounts of energy and as prices skyrocket that is becoming a challenge. While energy costs account for around 2 per cent of the ICR’s budget, that proportion could expand rapidly over the next few years.

According to Simon Francis, director of facilities and estates at the ICR, the institute has been “a little bit insulated from the rising cost this year” because of the way energy is bought for many higher education institutions.

In the next financial year, though, energy costs could start to bite. Just how bad things could get is anyone’s guess: “There are a lot of variables that could change, and the market is extremely volatile,” Francis tells Research Fortnight. “Worst-case scenario, we’re looking up to nearly a doubling of our energy costs.” 

Tough winter ahead

The ICR is far from the only institution concerned about the rising cost of energy. Across the higher education sector, universities and research institutes are preparing for a tough winter as the temperature drops and energy use rises. And while many are tempted to turn down the thermostats, ongoing worries over Covid-19 mean that ventilation is still a must. That generally means bringing in frigid air from outside that makes lecture theatres and offices colder.

Amid the gloom, there could be light on the long-term horizon, as energy-saving efforts that universities put in place now could help with the transition to a lower-carbon future. But the immediate costs also threaten to eat away at other efforts to decarbonise, backfiring in the long run. 

Collective bargaining

It was clear as far back as the spring that rising inflation, which has twice breached 10 per cent this year, and the related Russian invasion of Ukraine, would have a significant impact on energy bills for households and businesses.

Thankfully, most universities and research institutes are not as exposed to shock energy rises this winter as they could be. A member-owned organisation called The Energy Consortium negotiates with gas and energy companies on behalf of around 70 per cent of the higher education sector in England and Wales.

The current arrangement means those universities are paying for energy at a price that is lower than the government’s emergency, six-month price cap.

Adam Clarke, managing director at TEC, says that while it is “great that we haven’t had to utilise the government cap for the majority of the membership…the price of energy will still be higher for our members compared with what they were paying before”.

He says: “This has come as a shock to everybody—this simultaneous crisis in power and gas. And I’d be very surprised if people budgeted for such high numbers.” 

Clarke points out that even if most universities will not be facing large rises in their bills this year, there is still an “opportunity cost” to any increase linked to inflation.

“It might not be a survival thing, but this certainly means that investment plans will have to change, so there will be direct and indirect consequences.”

Estates challenge

Some universities are grappling with large estates that, while they may include modern and retrofitted buildings that are designed to be energy-friendly, tend to “leak energy,” Clarke says.

In September, Research Fortnight reported that UK universities collectively spend around £400 million per year on energy, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The University of Nottingham is one of the institutions in the top 10 for energy consumption, and like other energy-intensive institutions it is taking steps to address its energy use.

Andrew Nolan, director of sustainability at the university, says that his institution is encouraging staff to take basic steps: “Switch off equipment, lights, monitors and laptops to help reduce our increasing electricity bill. Every pound saved is a pound that can be spent on our core business needs of teaching and research.”

Nolan says the university’s building management system allows them to monitor energy use, meaning they can “carefully track changing working patterns and adjust our heating profiles accordingly, ensuring spaces that are used are kept warm”.

“Heating spaces and water uses a considerable amount of gas, and we’ve seen our gas costs projected to hit £6m this coming year,” he says. “But there are win-wins—carefully using our building management system, we can ensure we don’t overheat spaces and keep costs and carbon emissions down.”

The Covid impact

The Covid-19 pandemic has not helped universities keep heating costs down.

Jane White, executive director of the Association of University Directors of Estates, says that although the strict government regulations of the pandemic are gone, there is still a “nervousness around ventilation” on campuses. This has implications for how much universities expect to be spending on their heating bills, White explains. Many universities are still using air-conditioning to improve ventilation, or opening windows in classrooms and lecture theatres, “which of course makes a building harder to heat”.

She also worries that because of skyrocketing energy prices, universities’ long-term efforts to decarbonise their supply could be under threat. White says that many of AUDE’s members have carbon-reduction strategies, which cover plans for new infrastructure and how they will get their energy. “But that costs…a hell of a lot of money,” she says. “We’ve had a couple of universities cost that out, and it’s hundreds of millions of pounds. And they don’t have it.”

She adds: “With what’s going on with the economy, and the cost of living, and rising energy prices, there’s a real risk that those plans are going to have to go on the shelf because they just can’t afford them.”

Green shoots

Not everyone thinks things are so bleak. Back at the ICR, Francis is busy implementing strategies to reduce energy use, including turning down the thermostat, consolidating office space into fewer rooms to heat, and creating a booking system for laboratory use.

“We’re looking immediately at all these options,” he says. “I suppose it’s about making every pound we spend work as hard as it can.”

The ICR has even taken part in a trial to reduce the temperature on freezers that are used to store biological samples from -80 degrees Celsius to -70 (see box).

This trial designed to encourage sustainable practices in labs has been running since 2017, years before the current energy cost woes hit research institutes.

Even though efforts to reduce energy at the ICR have gained a new urgency with the cost of living crisis, Francis stresses that these changes were already happening as part of the ICR’s long-term plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2039-40.

“I’ve got my financial hat on, and my carbon hat on, and [they are] all telling me to go in the same direction,” Francis says.

In the battle against rising energy costs, efforts to reduce carbon emissions could be heated up at some institutions—but they could be frozen in their tracks at others.   

Freezer challenge

The Freezer Challenge is a global competition designed to promote best practice in cold storage management. This year, the Institute of Cancer Research took part in the challenge to increase the temperature for freezers storing its tissues, cells and other biological materials.

Running its freezers at -70 degrees Celsius instead of -80 did not affect the samples, but it did reduce energy consumption by 40 per cent. Now the ICR is looking to roll the system out across the organisation.

Simon Francis, director of facilities and estates at the ICR, says that although “there was some nervousness” among scientists, “the fantastic thing for me is that everyone was committed to this, and it was about finding solutions” to using less energy.

“We’re looking at lots of other areas, like the consumables we use, and energy use through to sterilising materials,” he adds.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight