illustrated scene of people walking on St. George campus

How U of T plans to fulfill tri-campus climate positive pledge

Rahul Kalvapalle

The block-shaped, brick industrial facility at 17 Ursula Franklin Street might not be University of Toronto’s most iconic building, but in many ways, it is the unsung hero that enables the St. George campus’s more well-known edifices to function.

It’s the heart of the district energy system – the central steam plant. There, water is boiled to make steam that is piped around to heat most buildings on campus, as well as some nearby non-university properties such as the Royal Ontario Museum.

But the plant was built in the early 1950s and needs an eco-friendly upgrade. Its boilers burn natural gas. Switching from gas to electric boilers would make a huge dent in the university’s carbon footprint – but also cost more (electricity is 10 times more expensive than natural gas in Ontario).

Ron Saporta, U of T’s chief operating officer of property and sustainability, dubs this the “carbon versus cost” quandary: to curb carbon emissions from the steam plant, the university needs to slash energy use and costs. That requires a big financial commitment. Enter the Canada Infrastructure Bank’s $50-million investment to kickstart the university’s Project Leap, a collection of building modernizations that will help the St. George campus halve its carbon emissions in three years, and eliminate more greenhouse gases than it emits well before 2050 – the year by which all three campuses have pledged to become climate-positive.

Costing $138 million in total, Project Leap uses a unique funding model that draws partly on federal and provincial grants and partly on private financing, on top of the investment by the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

The first pillar of the project will be to carry out extensive retrofits of the most power-hungry buildings to cut their energy costs. These tend to be buildings with lots of science labs; a single fume hood, which removes hazardous or toxic fumes, can use as much electricity as three homes.

To put that into perspective, just three of the buildings selected for Project Leap – the Medical Sciences Building, the Donnelly Centre and Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building – contain 243 fume hoods among them. “In these wet lab-heavy buildings, we’ll carry out something called ‘active heat recovery,’ where you take heat out of the air being exhausted and reuse it to heat the building,” Saporta says.

The savings that result from active heat recovery and other retrofits will go toward purchasing electricity to power two new electric boilers (which will replace one large natural gas boiler).

Meanwhile, buildings around King’s College Circle will be connected with the new geo-exchange system beneath front campus that will heat them in winter and cool them in the summer, while helping to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

These retrofits will be completed by the end of 2027, by which point the St. George campus will have breezed past emission reduction targets for 2030 set by the federal government, the university’s own Low-Carbon Action Plan and – impressively – the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change goal, which aims to keep global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Similar carbon reduction efforts are underway at U of T Mississauga, which plans to convert gas boilers in its central utilities plant to electric. The campus is also constructing two “nodal plants” – essentially mini utilities plants – to more efficiently heat buildings located farther from the main hub. A new geo-exchange system will cover most of the energy needs of the New Science Building.

UTM recently undertook a rigorous campus-wide process as part of the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System and received a gold STARS ranking as a result. The rating system tracks colleges and universities around the world as they address the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainability. UTM's current gold ranking builds on the silver STARS designation it received in 2020.

UTM’s most energy-intensive structure is the William G. Davis Building, which houses everything from labs and lecture halls to food services. The building is being evaluated by grad students taking the “Ha/f Research Seminar,” in which they measure the carbon footprint of U of T buildings and assess the impact of potential renovations. The seminar is one of hundreds of U of T projects where students, faculty and staff collaborate to analyze the sustainability of university infrastructure and provide recommendations.

Student studies at a window overlooking a green campus
Illustration by Maaike Canne

Last year, U of T Scarborough carried out an airtightness test of its Humanities Wing, part of the Andrews Building, to figure out how much air leaks out of the structure. The test was one element of a comprehensive study of energy performance that will inform future retrofits to the building. “This is a very difficult test to do with a 1960s building of this size with open spaces, underground tunnels and connections to other buildings,” says the campus’s sustainability manager, Patricia Escobar.

While it looks to renew older buildings, U of T Scarborough is also ensuring that new construction is climate-responsible. Last fall, it opened Harmony Commons, a 746-bed student residence that meets the rigorous (but voluntary) Passive House standard for energy efficiency. The upcoming Scarborough Academy of Medicine and Integrated Health will boast an array of sustainability features, including solar panels built into the facade. The campus is also setting up a new geo-exchange system to add to the three it already has.

The scale of these tri-campus sustainability measures hasn’t gone unnoticed. In December, U of T was named the most sustainable university in the world in the QS Sustainability Rankings, besting 1,400 institutions in 95 countries.

It is an accolade that Saporta appreciates, even if he doesn’t view climate action as a competitive endeavour. His sustainability team recently organized workshops with counterparts at the University of California, Berkeley – which placed second behind U of T in the ranking – to exchange knowledge and best practices. U of T is also working with the Toronto Region Board of Trade on a playbook that can guide other institutions in drafting decarbonization initiatives inspired by Project Leap’s model.

“Many institutions are struggling with the UN targets and saying, ‘These targets are too aggressive, we can’t do it.’ Well, we’re going to prove to everyone that you can do it,” Saporta says. “Our solutions are highly replicable and can be used by institutions in North America and beyond to address the climate challenge. “It’s about getting everybody to improve,” he adds. “It’s one Earth.”

This story first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of University of Toronto Magazine