Monash University’s “living laboratory” for zero carbon, micro-grid innovation

Melbourne’s Monash University is in a good position to become a “living laboratory” for sustainable, zero carbon, micro-grid innovation.
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With more than 150 buildings spread over four campuses, Melbourne’s Monash University is in a good position to become a “living laboratory” for sustainable, zero carbon, micro-grid innovation. 

In partnership with industry, the university’s researchers, asset management personnel and students are currently in the midst of a grand experiment to achieve the goal of being a net zero carbon emissions university by 2030.

The initiative had its genesis in 2005 when the university set a goal of reducing energy use by 20 per cent. In 2017, it upped the ante and pledged to achieve net zero. 

ClimateWorks Australia had mapped out how the university could achieve the goal.

Fundamental strategies included improving the energy efficiency of both new and existing assets; installing renewable energy including solar PV systems; purchasing verified carbon offsets; engaging in a power purchase agreement with the Murra Warra Windfarm in Western Victoria; and converting all campuses to full electrification.

New technologies to enable microgrids and embedded networks to deliver reliable and stable power from renewable energy.
Photo courtesy of Monash University

The micro-grid project could be expanded to the whole city

A micro-grid project, to be trialled first at the university’s Clayton campus is an important piece of the puzzle.

In addition to testing new technologies to enable microgrids and embedded networks to deliver reliable and stable power from renewable energy, the Monash microgrid pilot will also test market mechanisms and business models.

The university partnered with software developer Indra for the AU$7.17 million project to build the microgrid, which has attracted AU$2.97 million in funding from ARENA. It has also received a grant from the Victorian government under the microgrid demonstration program to test the business models and regulatory challenges for microgrid operators.

Scott Ferraro, project director

The Net Zero Initiative program director, Scott Ferraro, says the Clayton campus micro-grid project is being designed so it can be scalable to the city level.

Currently, the university as a whole is the single commercial customer for energy, so part of the challenge will be to establish a way of treating each building as a separate “customer”, in order to prove the micro-grid concept.

Distributed ledger technologies are among the technologies being considered to trade generated renewable energy

Ferraro says distributed ledger technologies are among the technologies being considered.

These could have a role in how to undertake settlement of transactions between buildings as customers. It could also enable trading between the four Monash campuses down the track.

He says the whole push for net zero more broadly is a “multi-disciplinary problem”, which is engaging staff, researchers and students from across multiple Schools.

The journey towards net zero is a “multi-disciplinary problem”.
Photograph courtesy of Monash University

The IT and engineering faculties have a role, including the recruiting of new post-doctoral researchers to work on aspects of the transactive energy market being developed for the project, including design of the market rules and the algorithms involved.

The transactive energy market, for example, will enable the microgrid to take a market signal such as wholesale energy market exposure or a requirement for a demand response measure, and then ensure the building or customer best placed to respond to the signal does so.

Extensive expertise across the energy sector and artificial intelligence

“Monash has massive expertise around [artificial intelligence] and machine learning,” Ferraro says. This will be part of the resource base leveraged for the project to ensure the micro-grid system has maximum flexibility and incorporates “smart forecasting” of demand.

The Business School is also part of the mix, as is the Sustainable Development Institute, for aspects such as designing a tariff structure and addressing behavioural elements.

the university also works to build similar expectations into what its students look for in future employers

While a lot of the building controls such as lighting and HVAC are automated, Ferraro says it is necessary to understand what happens when building conditions go “outside the established comfort parameters” and how to incentivise tolerance and engagement among building users.

The Faculty of Law will be examining the regulatory and policy barriers, and the Victorian government has tipped in some funding for research into specific regulatory barriers and possible business models, Ferraro says. 

“It is a big platform for research.”

Not only does this leadership and innovation provide opportunities for research, teaching and learning inside the university, it also assists with attracting industry partners and  government funding. 

“We are working to address issues relevant to energy industry as it transitions to higher penetration of renewables”, Ferraro says.

Monash University as a “living laboratory” for sustainable, zero carbon, micro-grid innovation.
Photo courtesy of Monash University 

New students are also attracted by the initiative. They have “high expectations” of their universities in terms of taking action around climate change and sustainability.

Universities are built to address these kinds of big social challenges. It is in our DNA.

The aim is to build similar expectations into what its students look for in future employers and what they ask of their employers once in the workplace.

The initial commitment to net zero emissions was about taking a leadership position on climate change.

“Universities are built to address these kinds of big social challenges. It is in our DNA and we have the skills and the resources.”

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