University of Edinburgh Utilities Supply Company University of Edinburgh Utilities Supply Company University Complete

Vital Energi’s CHP energy installation at the University of Edinburgh threw up more challenges than most, with archaeology and conservation issues and restricted access, but with those challenges overcome, the project is now saving the university money on its energy bills while lowering its CO₂ emissions.

“The system being installed is one of the best low carbon solutions we’ve found over the years and we can make significant savings, in terms of thousands of tonnes of carbon per year, and that is a major contribution to our overall targets. Vital have shown themselves to be flexible during the course of this project. There were several instances, such as during the exam period and the Edinburgh Fringe when some areas of work had to stop and Vital have had to work around it and through good planning and management they continued to meet the tight deadlines while causing as little disruption to the University and Edinburgh and its stakeholders. ”

David Barratt Operations Manger, University of Edinburgh

Project Overview

Last year, Scotland’s energy bill for its universities and colleges reached £25 million and they have been officially tasked with reducing their energy bills and CO₂ emissions.

The University of Edinburgh is a perfect example of the challenges facing modern educational institutions. In the last 25 years its student population has almost trebled to well over 30,000 and it saw the number of computers connected to the university network grow from 1,000 in 1999 to more than 16,000 in 2009.

This huge growth has seen a dramatic rise in the amount of energy consumed, but through continuous investment in its energy infrastructure and campus, the university has significantly reduced their CO₂ output despite their expansion. The most recent step to lower their energy consumption and emissions saw a new £8 million low carbon community heating system and private electricity network installed by Vital Energi for the University of Edinburgh Utilities Supply Company.

The University of Edinburgh has a track record of investing a percentage of their annual utilities spend on energy efficiency improvements, a practice which has seen the Guardian describe their work as the country’s “quietest green revolution.”

The Challenge

The university needed a contractor who could move quickly and work to a very tight schedule. Vital Energi met this challenge by being on site 2 weeks after the order was placed and having a watertight building in just 12 weeks.

Another substantial challenge facing the Vital team was digging through such an old city on a route which would see it dig beneath Flodden Wall, a historical monument, which involved the team being accompanied by archaeologists.

Vital Energi's Solution

The University of Edinburgh proved to be one of the most challenging projects Vital Energi had undertaken. The 431 year old University brought with it a mix of conservation and heritage issues, extremely limited access and a hugely challenging timescale for completion of the project. This timescale was made even more difficult due to scheduled periods where work ceased to accommodate the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and student exams.

Working within the historic part of Edinburgh brought its own challenges. We had to lay district heating pipe beneath Flodden Wall which is a historic monument, meticulously removing and replacing cobbled streets and were accompanied by an archaeologist who was plotting the boundaries of the old city wall. The work also led to the discovery of a knight’s skeleton during excavation in High School Yards, which created a temporary delay.

Forethought and careful planning enabled Vital Energi to overcome some significant obstacles in order to successfully complete the design and build of a new CHP energy centre located within the staff car park area of The Centre for Sport and Exercise (CSE) to provide heating, hot water and electricity to the University campus via underground pipework and cabling. In its determination to meet the timescale, Vital Energi undertook a large amount of prefabrication work to ensure ease and speed of installation on-site. This included having all the energy centre mechanical pipe work prefabricated off site to ensure quality of product, less on-site welding and to save install time on site.

The energy centre houses one CHP 1.4MWe engine, a 100,000 litre thermal storage, two 9MW back-up/peak load gas boilers, High Voltage/Low Voltage switch-rooms and associated plant. The CHP engine will provide heat and hot water via a district heating network which involved approximately 4km of pipe connecting 13 sites and generating electricity for 14 buildings.

The new North and South Holyrood Postgraduate accommodation blocks are included within the scheme and Vital Energi pulled out all the stops to include two additional buildings – Thomson’s Land and Paterson’s Land – which were originally scheduled for connection at a later date.

The energy centre site was only accessible through a narrow low tunnel measuring 3.5m to 3.7m in height. Vital Energi, therefore, had to design the equipment to fit through this access while still delivering optimum performance.  This challenge was a first for us but careful preparation meant that we managed to bring all equipment and plant through the tunnel except the gas-fired boilers and the thermal store. Special permission from highways was obtained to shut Viewcraig Gardens, the street running alongside the CSE, while the remaining plant was craned on to site after we had managed to build up good working relationships with the two highways departments impacted by the project.

At Thomson’s Land we had to install the pipes up the side of the building and clad them in sandstone to match the existing building facade. At St Leonard’s there were two plant rooms originally, one serving the pool and the other providing space heating. We combined the two plant rooms together to improve efficiency.

The whole scheme has been future-proofed by sizing the district heating to accommodate later extension to serve the OId College Area and link to George Square. Vital Energi has also been invited to tender for the 10 year operations and maintenance contract for the CHP engine.


The University of Edinburgh has a long history of improving its environmental performance, was already utilising CHP technology and had a clear idea of the areas where it could make improvements.

Vital Energi’s in-house expertise allowed them to be flexible with regards to planning and installation and they were on site just two weeks after signing the contract and completed basic building work on the energy centre within three months.

The new community energy scheme was installed and finished in time and on budget and now saves the University approximately £170,000 a year in energy costs (gas and electricity) and reduces its annual carbon emissions by an estimated 1,016 tonnes.

Key Benefits

  • Flexible solution that adapted to the clients requirements and kept project schedule on track
  • Careful preparation ensuring multiple hurdles were successfully managed
  • Low carbon energy supply saving 1,016 tonnes of CO₂ per annum
  • Private wire network supplying campus buildings and cutting electricity costs