High electricity prices are leaving universities worried as expenses budgets are bust and administrators hard-pressed to find ways of paying bills. The additional €10 million the government has allocated for universities could simply go toward paying for heat.
Riina Uska, development director for real estate for the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), said that bills have grown drastically since last year. "We are looking at monthly differences as it makes no sense to compare the situation to last year. Things are looking quite dire," she said.
TalTech's August bills were double compared to July. "There is no cause for celebration. We have been trying to dial back everywhere in anticipation of price advance, while no one knew to expect such a hike," Uska offered.
Estonian University of Life Sciences Director of Administration Toivo Ilves said that energy bills are up 50 percent. "The money we had planned for this year's budget is all but spent."
Katrin Saks, development prorector for Tallinn University, said that power and heating expenses for the first eight months of the year are in the vicinity of a million euros, and current calculations suggest another million will be spent by year's end. The budget had €1.2 million for energy expenses.
University of Tartu Chancellor Kstina Vallimäe said that heating expenses were estimated at €3,865,000 for 2022, while the actual cost is now forecast to be €6,902,000, meaning the university will be short around €3 million.
Universities are still discussing how to cover the deficit. Toivo Ilves said that it needs to be a political decision. "It is clear that the university will not come up with the money to pay those bills. While we can switch off the light when we leave the room, the effect this would have at current prices is modest," he said, adding that heat cannot simply be turned off.
The University of Life Sciences will revisit temperatures in its buildings and react promptly to any disturbances in the operation of automatic heating control systems. "But it is clear that the price of heat going from €63 per megawatt-hour to €93/MWh is not something you can mitigate by lowering room temperature," Ilves said.
He added that much depends on the weather. Ilves said that heating can be turned off during the day when its 10 degrees outside. "But if the outside temperature dips below freezing, turning off the heat causes you to spend the next three days just getting the temperature back up again, which offers no saving."
He also suggested there are few solutions and research is pursued in laboratories that need to use freezers. "They are used to store research materials. We can't just switch them off," Ilves said.
Kstina Vallimäe said that the University of Tartu regulates heat and ventilation based on the needs and functions of different buildings. "Both heating and ventilation can be dialed down to a certain level, before it starts interfering with work and studying," she said.
Tallinn University is also planning to lower the temperature by a few degrees and switch off the ventilation between Saturday evening and Monday morning. Energy use in three of the university's buildings will be controlled by AI by R8 Technologies. Katrin Saks hopes this will yield considerable saving.
The temperature has been lowered from 23-24 degrees to 19-21 degrees in TalTech buildings. Riina Uska said that service provider Utilitas told them during a meeting in spring that lowering room temperature is the best way to save on energy costs.
TalTech switched from its own gas boiler plant to Utilitas central heating back in late March. The University of Tartu has also switched from gas to central heating in some buildings.
The university still plans to install its traditional Christmas lights that use LEDs but is considering switching off the show at night.
Old buildings costly
Universities are increasingly considering renewable energy. TalTech is in the home stretch with solar panels planning for three of its buildings. Uska said that one of the university's complexes could get the panels by year's end. Tallinn University plans to use money saved to install solar panels on the roof of its Vita building. The University of Tartu has solar panels on its Delta Center and Lossi 3 buildings and plans to install them on the library roof. Construction is set to be completed by January of next year, with new solar developments in the pipeline for 2023.
Riina Uska said that people have been pampered by favorable energy prices and haven't really looked at the numbers before. Once they did, ways to cut costs were found. "However, this requires the university's buildings to be controlled automatically, which they are not in full today," she said to suggest real estate investments have been insufficient. "Our buildings are from the 1960s and do not meet modern efficiency standards. It is coming back to bite us," she said.
While Latvian universities are mulling switching to remote learning because of expensive heating, there are no such plans in Estonia. Tallinn University plans to close most of its buildings between December 17 and January 8 to save on heating.
Katrin Saks said that higher education has seen subpar financing for a long time, with the high price of energy set to deliver an additional blow. "The government has pledged to give universities more money in next year's state budget but soaring energy prices mean that most of it will be burned for heat so to speak. Because a considerable part of additional resources will be spent on administrative expenses due to inflation, sums left for salary expenses and ensuring the sustainability of higher education will be modest."
Saks said that because there are no plans for how those €10 million will be allocated between universities, it is difficult to make plans. "It is more than likely the money will be spent on paying for energy," she said.
Toivo Ilves from the University of Life Sciences said that political decisions are needed for energy market rules. "Until then, all we can do is pray and light a candle in hopes of a warm winter."
Asked what would happen if the government did not give universities more money, Uska admitted she has no answer.
She said that TalTech is urging people to follow the same rules at work that they would at home. This means switching off the light when leaving the room and avoiding excessive heating. "We will put on sweaters and meet the winter together."
Aire Koik, communication adviser at the Ministry of Education and Research, said that energy costs have grown everywhere, with higher education no exception.
"Of course, this matter has been discussed at the ministry. We have put together energy saving guidelines for state schools to complement guidelines from the public administration minister. We are looking for individual solutions together with State Real Estate AS – what could be done in school buildings to maximize energy saving," she said.
Koika said that various agencies have put together general recommendations for saving energy, including the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.
The ministry is planning no separate support for universities' energy bills. "We are sending an additional €10 million to the higher education operating budget this year. Universities' operating subsidies will grow from €175 million to €201.5 million next year," Koik remarked.
Editor: Marcus Turovski