31. August 2022 | Magazine:

Every saving helps! Vice President Dietmar Smyrek on the challenge of reconciling presence operation and energy-saving measures in the winter semester

Rising energy costs do not only affect private households, Technische Universität Braunschweig will also have to face them. In his contribution to the series “Saving Energy at TU Braunschweig”, Dietmar Smyrek, Vice President for Human Resources, Finance and Infrastructure, explains with which measures the university intends to encounter the impending gas shortage and why this is a joint task.

Dietmar Smyrek, Vice President for Human Resources, Finance and Infrastructure. Photo credit: Max Fuhrmann/TU Braunschweig.

Mr Smyrek, as Vice President you are the initiator of the “Energy Saving at TU Braunschweig” campaign. What was the cause for the campaign?

Energy prices have already risen sharply in 2021. After the start of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine, it was clear that the issue would continue to escalate. That was ultimately the reason why we ran the energy saving tips campaign in April. We wanted to raise awareness early on and initiate an exchange of information about the measures that are already being used to save energy at TU Braunschweig. Valuable tips were received, which we shared with the university. I am very grateful for this exchange.

However, we could not have imagined at the beginning of the year what we are currently facing in the context of the energy crisis. We will have to deal with far-reaching changes in energy supply, which will make it very acutely necessary for us to save energy. And this for three reasons: Firstly, we want to make our joint contribution to getting us through the winter with the scarce gas reserves. In model calculations, the Federal Network Agency envisages a saving of 20 percent in gas consumption. The second reason is that we have to compensate for the unchecked energy price increases that will be coming at us next year at the latest. And thirdly, we see it as our long-term responsibility to act sustainably and to counteract climate change by saving greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption.

What does the energy supply situation at TU Braunschweig look like?

The situation is currently very dynamic. But we can be relatively sure that there will not be such a bottleneck that no district heating will reach us at all. The energy provider in Braunschweig is working on switching to coal and waste wood so that the district heating supply is ensured. And with regard to electricity, we share the risks that also affect all citizens, namely that there may be short-term overloads and fluctuations in the electricity grid. We do not currently anticipate any long-term supply bottlenecks.

So you don’t see any direct impact on university operations?

Supply is only one side of the coin. On the other side, we will of course have to make massive savings for the reasons mentioned. This will have a strong impact on operations and familiar processes. However, we immediately agreed in the advisory committee “Energy Supply” that we will conduct the coming winter semester as an attendance semester. We want to continue the presence we have just regained, especially for our students, in the next semester. Looking at other universities, this assurance cannot be taken for granted. We also do not want to place an additional burden on our employees by closing down the presence operation here and shifting the problem to the private sphere. In everyday life at university, however, there will be very noticeable cuts in comfort.

Some federal states are currently discussing whether to extend the winter break, for example. What savings measures would be conceivable here at TU Braunschweig?

The extension of the winter break could be a measure that we still have to discuss, but which would essentially have no effect on the presence operation. We will have to save, but in such a way that the quality of teaching and research is affected as little as possible. The greatest potential lies in reducing the heating output.

Starting points that are under discussion, for example, are the reduction of temperatures in our buildings in order to save district heating. In addition, we are considering reducing the heat output even more at weekends or during off-peak hours. We can only achieve our goals if every employee makes a contribution and uses energy sustainably. I’m talking about lighting, the use of standby mode, incorrect ventilation, heating on days off.

The necessary measures will certainly also hurt. Processes will have to be partly rescheduled so that they are concentrated on core hours. This may, for example, lead to a new clocking of internships, but also affect experiments that were scheduled at later hours or on weekends. Flexibility has become a luxury that we now have to rethink. Here, unfortunately, the TU is no different than any person in the private sphere.

What could normality look like in the university buildings over the winter?

The behaviour we are showing at home at the moment – that is, checking our own energy consumption – we must also show at work. And it must also become normal to perhaps work in a jumper in the office. Of course, we will not switch off any equipment that is necessary for operation or jeopardise safety in order to save costs. It is also clear that we will not risk any infrastructural or health damage. But we do not necessarily have to fully heat and light corridors, stairwells and empty offices. We also need to consider whether there is energy-consuming infrastructure that can be limited in its operating hours or how the total heated office space can be reduced by moving even closer together. Like many private individuals, we will start the heating season later. The first colder days in September don’t necessarily mean that the entire heating system has to be turned up. We need to be creative: I recently called on the management of our facilities to discuss this with their teams. A best practice exchange is also planned.

What about the more energy-efficient design of buildings and building technology?

These are measures that are designed for the long term and we have already achieved a lot here. We have set up photovoltaic systems that are equivalent to the electricity consumption of about 220 single-family homes. By modernising ventilation systems in laboratories, we have tapped into further efficiency gains. Through energy cost budgeting, we have already saved about 13 per cent electricity and 20 per cent district heating compared to 2013. At the same time, however, we all see energy deficiencies in the building stock – for example, leaky windows or inefficient insulation. Unfortunately, the budgetary situation is such that we have neither the manpower nor the financial resources to take comprehensive action in the short term. Many measures take time, so that we would not be able to achieve any savings this winter. Construction measures usually take years, often decades, to pay for themselves – but it would still make sense. We have been pointing out for years that there is a considerable need here. Both aspects, i.e. the savings already achieved and the renovation backlog in the building stock, make it clear that we are not dealing with an easy challenge. Therefore: Turning down the heating by one degree now brings energy savings of six percent. At two degrees, it’s already twelve percent. In order to achieve such energy savings through structural measures, one would have to set up insanely expensive and long-term renovation programmes.

A lot of energy can be saved quickly and easily through one’s own heating behaviour. Photo credit: Kristina Rottig/TU Braunschweig

How much energy should be saved?

We want to make our contribution to achieving the 20 per cent energy savings that the Federal Network Agency has specified. Our ambition is to do this in addition to the savings already achieved. It is clear that not all facilities can achieve this. Because of he heterogeneous infrastructures the conditions are not the same everywhere: a heated hall in which physical work is also done, can be cooled down further than pure office buildings, also minimum legal standards must be complied with. Of course, the rule applies: every contribution, no matter how small, helps and is valued. The 20 per cent target seems very ambitious, but if we can achieve it, it would be a terrific achievement.

How are the tasks of the “Energy Supply“ Advisory Council defined?

To do this, we first have to look at the composition of the committee. It includes representatives of the students, the senate, the staff council, the strategy commission, the faculties, the building management and four members of the Executive Board. It was important to us to include all perspectives in the composition of the advisory board. The committee has the task of proposing university-wide measures to the Executive Board that will meet with a high level of acceptance among the very different institutions and members of the university due to this multi-stakeholder approach within the university. The committee must therefore wisely weigh up what is feasible and reasonable for us as a Technische Universität. However, many things will also be specified by law: The committee is therefore also a hinge, the requirements and measures must be well justified and communicated to the university in a comprehensible way.

Let’s imagine we are sitting here together again next May. How would you like us to look back on the cold months?

The world will change with this crisis, that much is certain. When we look back in a good six months, we will not have covered the entire distance. This winter, we will certainly be affected and our nerves will be on edge at times. However, I would like us to understand the impending crisis as a joint effort and to overcome it together. Especially now we have to take responsibility and show solidarity – there is also an opportunity in questioning our habits. Therefore, I wish that we can all say with pride and conviction that we as a university community have made a great contribution to society and also in terms of sustainability. Such a “we-feeling” would be a good and important basis for successfully mastering the further path that then lies ahead of us. It can only be done together!

Thank you very much for the interview.