Unlocking Net Zero: HVAC Digital Twins to Bridge the Performance Gap

Empowering the Education Sector's Transition

In the pursuit of Net Zero emissions, universities and colleges find themselves at a pivotal crossroads. Balancing the financial squeeze of rising energy costs and the need for sustainable practices presents a formidable challenge. However, emerging technologies, such as HVAC System Digital Twins, are revolutionising the path to Net Zero while bridging the dreaded "Performance Gap."

1. The Energy Conundrum in Education

Universities and colleges in the UK are grappling with a unique set of challenges. Escalating energy costs, coupled with the financial demands of supporting students and staff, are placing considerable strain on their budgets. This financial pressure often impedes the pursuit of ambitious decarbonisation projects.

However data from the Royal Anniversary Trust reveals that the UK's HE and FE sectors are responsible for a staggering 17.8 million tCO2e, 25% of which comes from the built environment.

"The Cost of Net Zero", a report jointly published by BUFDG, EAUC, and AUDE, estimates decarbonising the HE and FE built environment necessitates investment exceeding £8.8 billion. Nevertheless, evidence shows that enhanced energy and carbon management yield long-term cost savings, with green investments offering economic and environmental benefits.

2. Addressing the Performance Gap: HVAC's Vital Role

Achieving Net Zero in the built environment relies heavily on shifting from fossil fuels to electrified heat sources and heat networks. However, a persistent challenge arises in both existing and new projects: the Performance Gap. This gap occurs when actual consumption during operation greatly differs from design-phase energy estimates.

Independent research, including publications by the Chartered Institute of Building Engineers (CIBSE) reveal buildings are consuming up to double the energy initially projected. HVAC systems, responsible for up to 70% of a building's energy consumption, bear a substantial portion of the blame.

Astonishingly, forensic studies of over 450 installations reveal that 95% underperform, stemming from a lack of transparency in design, unforeseen changes during installation, commissioning issues, and post-handover inefficiencies.

3. Unraveling Core Challenges

While innovative HVAC technologies are available, they don't guarantee optimal system performance. Addressing under-performance involves more than selecting the most efficient components. It requires efficient whole-system operation, data management throughout the project's lifecycle, interdisciplinary collaboration, accurate data exchange, and seamless integration from design to operation.

A deeper examination reveals three fundamental challenges at the heart of HVAC system Performance Gaps:

  • Outdated HVAC Tools: Traditional HVAC design and engineering tools struggle to cope with the increasing complexity of modern HVAC systems.
  • Communication Gaps: Within the supply chain, a lack of communication leads to a poor understanding of how design choices impact system performance.
  • Inadequate Information: As-built information provided to building owners upon project completion often falls short, resulting in inefficient system management and performance.

4. The Rise of HVAC System Digital Twins

Amidst these challenges, HVAC System Digital Twins emerge as a beacon of hope, offering a triad of benefits:

  • Simulation and Optimisation: Through cloud computing and advanced algorithms, entire HVAC systems can be simulated and optimised in a virtual environment before physical construction.
  • Transparency and Continuity: Digital twins provide transparency and continuity across all project stages, ensuring that the optimised design intent is faithfully realised in the final installation.
  • Performance Evaluation: Continuous reference for system monitoring and optimisation throughout the system’s operational life.

This technology empowers building operators to make informed, data-driven decisions early in the project and fosters open and transparent collaboration with their supply chain.

5. Real-world Success: HVAC Digital Twins in Action

Under the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS), Northumbria University tackled the challenge of replacing inefficient gas boilers with Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHPs) on campus. Partnering with Equans, they leveraged Hysopt's Digital Twin technology to prepare for low carbon heating. Nicola Mahmood, Equans' business development director, emphasizes their main concern: ensuring the design's performance matched expectations while keeping costs in check.

A deep analysis and optimised design enabled the replacement of 3MW of gas boilers with just 1.2MW of heat pumps across two buildings. Furthermore, the Hysopt digital twin revealed the potential to lower operating temperatures to 65°C, striking the right balance between budget constraints, carbon reduction, and operational efficiency.

Nicola underscores another crucial benefit, explaining that the digital twin's hard data dispelled misconceptions, enabling confident and transparent discussions within the University's boardroom.

6. A Vision for the Future: Embracing HVAC Digital Twins

As the education sector navigates the path to Net Zero while grappling with energy costs, HVAC System Digital Twins emerge as a transformative technology. Estates directors and senior managers in universities and colleges across the UK have the opportunity to leverage this technology to pave the way for a sustainable and cost-effective future. The journey to Net Zero is within reach, and HVAC System Digital Twins are the key to unlocking its full potential.

Discover more about Performance Gaps and HVAC Digital Twins in Hysopt’s whitepaper “The High Cost of Low HVAC Performance”