As environmental awareness increases, so does the need to act and reduce our carbon impact on the Earth. The University of Toronto has launched an innovative Low-Carbon Action Plan that aims to reduce Green House Gas (GHG) emissions across all three campuses. To discuss this project and its execution at UTM, The Medium sat down with Ahmed Azhari, the Director of Utilities and Sustainability, and Chelsea Dalton, Environment and Sustainability Coordinator at UTM.

One of the several ways in which the University of Toronto plans to reduce GHG emissions is by using geothermal exchange systems. Geothermal exchange systems consist of using boreholes—narrow shafts—drilled into the ground near a building as a source of heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. No burning of fossil fuels is required as heat is transferred to and from the ground.

The Instructional Building at UTM already employs geothermal exchange technology. The system was installed in 2011 when the building was being built and 117 boreholes were drilled into the soccer field beside IB. The boreholes are about two hundred metres deep and are lined with pipes that contain an anti-freeze solution. The system cools the building by expelling heat into the ground during the summer and in the winter the solution is warmed by the ground to heat the building. “All we need is a small amount of electricity to run the pumps,” says Dalton. “That building actually doesn’t use any natural gas at all” for its heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC).

UTM also plans to use geothermal exchange systems in the upcoming new science building which will function as a research facility. The boreholes will be drilled directly under the building to reduce any accidental damage that occurs as a result of drilling in the future. In addition to geothermal exchange, the building’s roof will be covered with solar panels which will provide part of the electricity for the building.

“[The buildings which employ geothermal exchange systems are] going to help combat climate change [by] reducing the carbon footprint that the building would otherwise have had if we built it like a conventional building,” says Dalton.

Azhari adds that “the low-carbon action plan is the driving factor behind most of the sustainability decisions that [have] happened.” The geothermal exchange system will substantially reduce UTM’s CO2¬ emissions to 858 tonnes per year and the new science building is projected to be 62.5-67.5 percent more efficient than a conventional building.

The St. George campus is planning to use the geothermal exchange system as well. The boreholes will be drilled in the Front Campus and the pump that is used to heat the buildings in King’s College Circle will be Canada’s largest heat pump from a ground source in an urban area.

The HVAC source in IB and the new science building are only two examples of the Low-Carbon Action Plan in play. Other buildings on the UTM campus are also upgrading towards reduced carbon consumption. For example, the recent construction in the RAWC involved installing solar evacuated tube collectors on the roof of the building. The tube collectors function as a solar-thermal system that produce heat instead of electricity and which will be used to preheat the water from the boilers in the RAWC, ultimately minimizing the amount of natural gas needed for the maintenance of the building.

Furthermore, the new Meeting Place in the William G. Davis building uses energy-efficient light bulbs and has transitional glazing on the glass that is installed in the building. The high-efficiency transitional-glazed glass darkens to reflect heat and light on hot days and adjusts accordingly on cooler days. The recent reroofing of the buildings on campus was done with the use of white materials. As a result, the roofs reflect more heat and therefore less energy is needed to cool the building in the summer.

“We do have a lot of opportunities for students to participate in Living lab type projects to help us out with certain things,” Dalton adds. An example is the ENV332: Practicum in Environmental Project Management course.

“U of T as a whole has committed to reducing our GHG emissions to 37 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030,” says Dalton. The momentary focus is on projects that will continue to 2024 and another set of projects have been planned for the years 2025 to 2030. While the course of action for 2031-2050 is still in the planning phase, Dalton says that the “official target for 2050 is to [reduce] our GHG emissions to 80 per cent below the 1990 levels.”

Azhari ends by saying that “the ultimate aspiration is to become net-zero carbon. That’s the ultimate goal. Now the question is how soon we can get to that.”

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