Algonquin College: Everything’s connected

A campus at one of Eastern Ontario’s leading educational institutes is a test bed for holistic integration of decentralized energy. The technology is also being integrated into student training and for the development of coursework on sustainability for both undergraduate and graduate programs.

According to a study jointly conducted by Arup and Siemens, Distributed Energy Systems (DES) – networks of decentralized power, heating, and cooling elements such as renewables, storage, combined heat and power (CHP), microgrids, or advanced building management systems – are a critical element of a sustainable future energy system. And where better to showcase the use of a system predicated on the establishment of new connections than an academic institution? What location could be more suitable to demonstrate the pooling of resources, the back-and-forth exchange between nodes, and the tapping of new energy sources than a campus? What better example of building resilience across a community where the sum is greater than its parts, than a community college?

Established in 1967 in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, the Algonquin College of Applied Arts and Technology serves 20,000 full-time and 43,000 part-time students, making it the largest college in Eastern Ontario. The college’s administration decided to make the campus a model of energy management and sustainability, with the following aims: To reduce energy use and CO2 emissions – with greenhouse gas emissions completely eliminated by 2042 – as well as to draw down debt for deferred maintenance and ensure uninterrupted operations, even in case of a large-scale power outage.


To pursue those goals, the college issued a request for proposal (RFP) to a group of corporate bidders, including Siemens, which had already been working with Algonquin in various ways over the past 25 years. Siemens put forward a strikingly bold proposal that stood out from all the others to help the college realize its vision.

Long-term partnership

Siemens proposed an arrangement that would go far beyond mere infrastructure updates; it laid out a roadmap for an in-depth partnership extending for decades. This special relationship between Algonquin and Siemens would encompass the requested technical upgrades in areas such as campus-wide measures to cut back water and energy use, including with the Siemens  Navigator, a cloud-based platform for data analytics; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) retrofitting; a replacement for the cooling tower; and optimization of the chiller plant and of building automation control, as well as intelligent lighting controls.

“One of the main reasons we went down this path with Siemens was a real intent to reduce the expenses of energy at the college,” explains Cheryl Jensen, President of Algonquin College. “We’re a large institution that is costly to run. The fact that all of this has reduced our energy expenses by CN$3.2 million annually is quite significant, but it’s also innovative, because to be able to put all that money back into the classroom and our student facilities is really quite remarkable.” 


As striking as the impact of the renovations has been, it is just the start of the story for what the Siemens-Algonquin partnership is achieving. The package also includes a 4-megawatt cogeneration plant, solar photovoltaic elements, power storage, and electric vehicle charging points. It’s all integrated by the Siemens Spectrum Power Grid Control Platform, with the result being a classic example of a distributed energy system. Best of all for the college was Siemens’ offer to collaborate on research initiatives and to have the campus serve as a “living lab” for the latest technologies. In fact, Siemens is directly involved in helping shape the development of Algonquin’s sustainability strategy.

At the heart of the matter for the college was the twin challenge of cost reduction and CO2 avoidance, linked with the need to make the campus more resilient and able to operate autonomously. These are all areas where distributed systems excel, and in an increasingly digital and automated world, such features are becoming more and more important, as the authors of the Arup/Siemens report point out.

Working with Siemens, we’re able to give our students state-of-the-art lab experiences in new technologies that will drive the jobs of the future.
Cheryl Jensen, President, Algonquin College

In a sense, Algonquin was fortunate to benefit from a combination of new technology trends coming together at the right time. However, the decision to invest in cutting-edge solutions was not only a pragmatic one, but based on the college’s vision for its own future and that of its students. “At Algonquin, we’re learner-driven. Working with Siemens, we’re able to give our students state-of-the-art lab experiences in new technologies that will drive the jobs of the future. They’re not just learning about it in the classroom. They can see the inner workings of something like our cogeneration plant, and understand what it does for the college. It means we can have future-ready learners coming out of our programs. Our students want to change the world, and that’s what they’ll be able to do,” says Cheryl Jensen.

Active engagement with the system

That forward-looking stance made the campus an ideal test bed. The DES study points out that engagement and transparency are emerging as crucial factors that will give consumers an active role in managing their own demand. At the Algonquin Centre for Construction Excellence, which was awarded LEED Platinum certification in 2012 by the Canada Green Building Council, students of energy management are already trying out for that role today, and it’s hard to imagine a better embodiment of engagement and transparency: As over 2,000 sensors continuously track the building’s performance, the trainee engineers observe and analyze their data in real time for hands-on lessons in building management within a distributed system. 

The Algonquin community is thus not only closely involved in the management of its own infrastructure, but uses it to train the experts of tomorrow who will be spreading and applying this knowledge in their careers. The didactic element has become something of a hallmark for the entire project. Students and faculty alike have the opportunity to work on cutting-edge developments, using advanced technology, and are sensitized to sustainability issues across the spectrum. “It’s all about giving students access and awareness of technologies they may not be able to experience otherwise,” explains Todd Schonewille, Director of Physical Resources for the college.


This collaboration is reinforced by the presence on campus of a Siemens sustainability coordinator who supports the college in reaching its sustainability goals through education and awareness-raising. Sarah Dehler, Sustainability Coordinator at Siemens Canada, explains the college’s rationale for choosing the distributed option: “The microgrid controller is a key element for allowing Algonquin College to take advantage of its energy assets.” 

The microgrid controller is a key element for allowing Algonquin College to take advantage of its energy assets.
Sarah Dehler, Sustainability Coordinator, Siemens Canada

With this solution, she adds, the college can optimize its finances, deciding at any given moment whether power from the grid or from co-generated energy is more cost-effective. The partnership also extends to collaboration on training and the development of sustainability undergraduate courses and a graduate certificate program, including an Energy Management Graduate Certificate. Sustainability is integrated into all undergraduate curricula, irrespective of discipline. In this way, the college is anticipating the future by using DES to train students in networking and pooling their skills, which will serve them well in their careers as managers and stewards of resources.


Author: Christopher Findlay, journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland.

Picture credits: Siemens AG


Algonquin College has embarked on an energy efficiency investment program consisting of the following elements:


  • CN$51 million investment over 20 years.
  • Collaboration on infrastructure upgrades for energy efficiency.
  • Introduction of new technologies, such as electricity cogeneration.
  • Resulting in up to CN$3.7 million in annual operating cost savings.
  • Guaranteed savings and financial solution with performance contracting.

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