Rough outline: how WUR will become carbon neutral by 2050

From heat pumps, solar and wind energy to insulation, LED lighting and energy-neutral new buildings. The outlines for a carbon neutral energy supply at WUR are clearly visible in the Rough outline of WUR Energy Transition 2050.

One by one, Dutch universities are presenting their roadmaps for a carbon neutral energy supply by 2050. After all, this is legally required. The Rough outline of WUR Energy Transition 2050 shows that this is not WUR’s first green plan. It is a continuation of plans that have already delivered tremendous results over the past ten years and in which the entire organisation plays an important role.

In 2020, for example, the gradual connection of campus buildings to the ATES loop began, in which heating and cooling are done using heat and cold storage. This will ultimately save 75% of the natural gas used on Wageningen Campus, which amounts to over 3 million cubic metres every year.

The most sustainable university in the world

The rough outline fits within WUR’s strategy for corporate social responsibility (CSR). The CSR agenda contains the themes that WUR stakeholders believe to be important. These include 17 societal themes, five of which are environmental: waste, circularity, renewable energy, sustainable mobility and climate-adaptive environment.

Reducing carbon emissions and dealing with climate change are important objectives in WUR’s plans for these themes. There is a reason why WUR has been leading the world university sustainability rankings since 2017. WUR energy coordinator Wouter van Leeuwen has noticed that many people within the organisation really want the energy transition. ‘We, as an organisation, have been working on this for a long time so we have come a long way.’

The graph shows the CO2 emission reduction from 2005 to 2050.
The graph shows the CO2 emission reduction from 2005 to 2050.

For example, every office building must have an energy label C from 2023 on. 'This is already the case at WUR because a lot of work has already been done on insulation and low-energy lighting, for example, following from previous multi-year energy efficiency agreements (MJA) with the government.' A graph that Van Leeuwen included in his rough outline shows how measures within these MJAs has caused the energy and gas to demand to drop considerably, just like the wind turbines WUR built in Flevoland.

Realistic and technically feasible

In 2022, WUR will use around 60,000 MWh of electricity and 6 million cubic metres of natural gas. This is comparable to the consumption of 13,000 homes, or a fairly large town. The graph shows that this still needs to drop significantly to achieve a carbon neutral energy supply by 2050. Van Leeuwen: “The end point is in accordance with the law, but we are not going faster than EU agreements. This is fine because it means our plans are realistic and technically feasible.”

In the rough outline, Van Leeuwen supplemented his own expertise with that of advisors, colleagues and members of the Energy Management Steering Group. This means that WUR will need less energy because of its energy efficient buildings, it will become natural gas free, it will continue to use sustainable energy generation from wind and solar power and it will thus realise a total energy reduction of 72% in comparison to 2005.

The graph shows which measures WUR has included in the charcoal sketch energy transition in the years up to 2050.
The graph shows which measures WUR has included in the charcoal sketch energy transition in the years up to 2050.

A lot to gain off-campus

The somewhat unassuming term 'rough outline' implies that the plan is not cast in stone just yet. And that is accurate: there are still a great many uncertainties. Van Leeuwen has compiled a conveniently arranged page showing which measures are still uncertain, such as emission-free cars and tractors, and which will definitely be implemented. Many of the certain measures, such as solar panels on roofs have been implemented already. All the mentioned measures are covered, but it is not clear just how much each measure will contribute yet.

A new measure that will definitely be implemented is the preservation of WUR locations off campus: namely greenhouses and farms. Van Leeuwen expects to be able to save as 10,000 MWh of energy, where energy is the sum of natural gas and electricity. That is 10% of WUR’s total current consumption. This year, Van Leeuwen is investigating the possibilities for each location, with the first modifications starting in mid-2023.

Some small steps, some hard stops

The Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR) site in Lelystad shows that you cannot always tackle energy consumption right away. Van Leeuwen: 'For WBVR, we have a contract with the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV) until 2034, before which time it would be unprofitable to replace the expensive gas boilers. We are therefore now investigating the possibility of realising climate-neutral buildings by 2035. Sometimes it is better to take one giant leap than lots of small steps.'

For example, the Nexus building on campus is being demolished. Other buildings may follow in due course or they may be sold. 'WUR used to be located in the city at the Dreijen. Some of those buildings have already been demolished, some are slated to be so and are currently acting as temporary student housing.'

Apart from government regulations, municipalities and the LNV contract, WUR also has to deal with the somewhat fickle world of energy. 'The energy system is changing,' says Van Leeuwen. 'Wind turbines and solar parks on land provoke resistance, large numbers of solar panels can cause grid congestion on sunny days, but simultaneously, we want to get rid of our natural gas dependency. The final point increases the need for electricity, just as the increasing number of electric cars does. We can respond to this by investing in energy storage, for example, and spreading out energy use where possible. It would be nice if we could generate our own energy off the grid and could store it in times of overcapacity. This means we can avoid grid congestion and use more electricity that is guaranteed to be green.'

Payback periods could take up to twelve years

According to the rough outline, it is still unclear what form energy storage will take within WUR. This will take further investigation. This depends on a variety of factors, such as developments in energy storage technology. There are other plans like this too, but the organisation-wide energy and management system constantly monitors developments and adjusts policies where necessary. Within WUR, the legally required energy audits also take place every four years. It is necessary to implement measures with a payback period of less than five years, but within WUR, this is also done with measures with longer payback periods: up to 12 years.

The 2020 audit showed that the biggest reduction in carbon emissions and gas consumptions can be achieved by replacing central heating boilers and water heaters on campus and at outdoor locations with alternatives (445 tonnes of carbon in emissions savings), better insulation (236 tonnes) and air-treatment units with heat recovery (186 tonnes). The final measure also saves 1,726 MWh of electricity consumption. LED lighting has also not been implemented everywhere yet: it can still save up to 1,420 MWh of electricity. Most of these plans will be realised in 2022.

What will cost all this?

And what will this all cost? According to the outline, the four measures mentioned above will cost EUR 15.7 million, of which EUR 9.6 million will be invested in LED lighting. In fact, Van Leeuwen expects that this latter cost in particular will be significantly reduced by centralised purchasing. Naturally, these investments also save energy costs, although these cannot be calculated with any precision because of the fickle nature of the energy market. What is paramount according to Van Leeuwen: ‘We are focussing on sustainability, but the security of supply is equally important. We have to be able to continue research. The failure of freezers and lab equipment, for example, is unacceptable, and they have to be affordable to use.’

All initiatives are welcome

The heart of energy management is cooperation between the energy management teams and sciences groups, emphasises Van Leeuwen. They go through the plan-do-check cycle to increase energy efficiency. He also repeats that this is a joint, organisation-wide effort and that initiatives and ideas are welcome. ‘I was asked by the Executive Board whether I prioritised wind over solar power or vice versa, but this is not the case. We are not excluding anything: we need everything.’

The war in Ukraine has completely changed our perspective on the energy transition and our dependence on natural gas. The sense of urgency to reduce our energy consumption has increased, and the government launched the Zet ook de knop om ('turn the heat down') energy saving campaign in April. This also has consequences for WUR and the implementation of the rough outline. For example, we are accelerating the activities that lead directly to energy savings where possible. You can read more in our previously published news article: