Carbon neutral by 2030: Keele University’s journey to judgement day

Keele University has pledged to reach net zero by 2030. Alex Goffe and Mathew Bailey from the university’s information and digital services team explain the vital role technology is playing to make this ambitious goal possible and offer their top three tips for starting your carbon neutral journey.


Spread over 600 acres, Keele is one of the largest university campuses in the UK and is already a sector leader in sustainability – last year it was named Global Sustainability Institution of the Year at the Green Gown Awards. But bringing such a large site to carbon neutrality by the end of the decade – sooner than most universities – is no small ambition. Success depends on technology and, not least, Keele’s network infrastructure.

Alex Goffe, Keele’s associate director, operations and infrastructure, says:

"We’re in a really good position – you might almost say a unique position – to do this. Keele is effectively a self-contained town and we have almost end-to-end control over the entire estate – all the buildings and all the utilities: power, water and gas.”

SEND - Keele’s Smart Energy Network Demonstrator - is a cutting-edge, real-time energy management system designed and installed in partnership with Siemens UK. The largest of its kind in Europe, its role is to intelligently optimise energy generation, distribution, storage, forecasting and balancing across the campus.

Mathew Bailey, head of network services, says:

“Keele has all sorts of different types of buildings: anything from a house up to large teaching and business complexes, all with completely different sets of requirements. And that's where our SEND project gained a lot of momentum, as we started to understand how those different buildings operated and what the requirements were for heating and lighting.

“We got involved quite early on to put infrastructure in the ground, so that all these things could start talking to each other. We now understand when people are arriving on campus, what they need to do and how they can use energy more efficiently. We can use the network underneath that to drive changes and make things happen, such as turning things on and off.”

Then in April this year, Keele opened its pioneering renewable energy park, an array of 12,500 solar panels and two wind turbines generating clean, renewable energy. With combined battery storage, the site supplies up to 50% of the campus’s electricity requirements and any excess is fed back into the local power grid to serve neighbouring communities. The energy park, built in partnership with low-carbon technology specialists Equans, is linked to SEND.

Mathew Bailey says:

“When we started to network all that, it was apparent that we could generate quite a lot of power, but then you've got to use it. So before we got battery storage on campus, there was a big push to start heating water, cooling buildings and spaces ahead of people arriving so that they could use that energy rather than it just going back into the grid, offsetting Keele's actual energy usage.”

The next step is using that energy in IT, as second largest consumer on the campus after estates, to power the data centres and the comms rooms. Goffe says:

“We've invested in new UPS (uninterruptible power supply) systems for data centres. They are not really expensive, bleeding edge systems, they’re just really good, energy efficient, new ones. Compared to what we had previously, that's helping reduce our consumption. And the data centre now being built to house our new high-performance computing cluster is going to be powered by our renewable energy park. So we're able to power one of the most intensive, power-hungry systems via renewable energy, which is unique at the moment."

He adds:

“Some of the things we’re doing are revolutionary but, with all the groundwork that's been done, some of it is also basic, like turning off aircon units in data centres at night or when it's minus 10 in the winter, which we can do because all our aircon is monitored through our building management so we've got visibility of temperature changes.”

The team’s sustainability ethos extends to the whole supply chain, from the plastic used in hardware packaging to the choice of cloud suppliers, where they make conscious decisions about who to use based on their sustainability plans. They make a point of talking to suppliers such as Amazon Web Services about those plans – and to smaller companies about packaging policies – so that the concern about carbon footprints can be fed back into those organisations as something high on customers’ agendas.

Bailey concludes:

“We're not there: it's a journey, but every step of it, we're trying to chip something off and say, ‘We can now do that in a more renewable way, and we can use the energy better’.”

Top three tips for starting your carbon neutral journey

With its self-contained campus, Keele has a head start on some other universities, not least those that are city based. So what elements of Goffe’s and Bailey’s experience might work for any university’s IT team? They offer a top three:

Take small steps that you can control. If you've got onsite data centres, can you invest in a more efficient UPS system? Are your suppliers carbon neutral or working towards that? Instead of having deliveries all the time, could you have a one day a week when all your deliveries from a supplier come in? What sort of packaging is being used? There are lots of small changes you can action immediately.

Monitor. Understand where and how you're using power. Because IT is everywhere, try to use your infrastructure as sensors and get the data in so that you can understand how buildings are being used and then go from there. If you can, get your IT infrastructure or power requirements integrated into building management systems.

Ensure that IT is in the conversation about green or sustainability policies as early as possible. Work with academic and estates staff to help drive through change, supporting as much as you can and not being a blocker.