Capstone students chart path to "Carbon Negative"

Friday 12 November 2021

When you boil water for your afternoon tea, are you heating more water than you need? 

That’s the level of detail you will find in an 80-page carbon negative study prepared by a team of Capstone engineering students for Shoal Group, an industry client with offices in Canberra, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Auckland. 

Capstone comprises an undergraduate and a graduate level course with a wide range of clients, including academics from other areas of the ANU and local industries. A systems engineering framework is applied in areas that include climate, energy, health, humanitarian engineering, and defence-related industries.

Having already achieved carbon neutrality, Shoal sought out a Capstone team to analyse operations and propose recommendations to achieve carbon negative.

“Our results produced some exciting outcomes demonstrating that a big difference in emissions can be made from sensible and practical changes to everyday activities,” explained Zoe Webb, who is part of the five-member Capstone team that used surveys and focus groups to identify and quantify the company’s current state of emissions.

Webb said the team’s recommendations could potentially reduce Shoal’s already offset emissions by half, and in the best case scenario, “reduce the company's emissions by almost the whole amount already offset, which is equivalent to offsetting the emissions of another company of a similar size”.

Fostering Capstone’s student/client ecosystem

Emilie Morscheck, a Graduate Engineer at Shoal, said the firm had been working towards carbon neutrality since 2019. They were the first systems engineering company in Australia certified as carbon neutral by Climate Active in 2021, and they see carbon negative as the next frontier.

“The Carbon Neutral project was very much driven by staff at Shoal, particularly more junior staff, although management loved the idea and the energy behind it,” Morscheck said. “Under our carbon neutral obligations, Shoal needs to actively seek ways to reduce our emissions. This project was envisioned as a way to meet our reduction obligations and to find new ways to reduce our environmental impact.”

Morscheck and her colleague, Thomas Larkin, are graduates of the ANU School of Engineering and both participated in Capstone as students. Larkin said that charting a path to carbon negative “seemed like a relevant, impactful, and emerging problem for the Systems Engineers of tomorrow to be solving”.

Capstone students self-select into teams after hearing project proposals from prospective clients. The selection event was held via Zoom with both remote and on-campus students due to the pandemic. Morscheck and Larkin fielded questions about the proposed project in a breakout room. Webb and four of her classmates signed on.

Andrew Catchpole said he was drawn to the carbon negative project by the prospect of using his technical engineering knowledge “to help create environmentally sustainable alternatives to the industry standard products and processes” while Isabella Federle said she was spurred by a “passion for renewable energy and how this field will develop in the future.”

Hayden Broomby, whose studies at ANU had been focused on Aerospace Engineering, said the carbon negative project provided him an opportunity to expand his horizons and step outside of his comfort zone. William Ertler, who is majoring in both Engineering and Arts, said he was motivated by a desire to further develop his systems engineering skills “while providing community benefit through decreased carbon emissions”.

Capstone course convener Dr Catherine Galvin said, “I have already received feedback from clients expressing their appreciation of the program. Many of our clients have engaged Capstone students to continue their work.”

“The Capstone team are ideal messengers for these recommendations as they bring the rigour that their studies have provided along with real passion and energy,” Morscheck said. “They have brought fresh and valuable insights into how Shoal operates as a business.”

In addition to furnishing a final recommendations document, the team will participate in a knowledge sharing session with the entire company on 19 November.

Solution Concept

The Capstone team analysed results from the company-wide survey as well as an in-depth meeting with six Shoal employees to establish the frequency and methods of transportation, including daily commutes and work-related travel, general work habits, and other office activities such as meal preparation and training sessions.

They then applied available data to quantify the carbon footprints to each activity and used that as a baseline for recommendations that would result in a total emissions reduction of 50.9%.

Methods included adjustments to individual choices such as packing a lunch instead of buying food in takeaway packaging, as well as changes that would require significant financial investment with long-term payback timelines such as switching to alternative energy sources and the purchasing of energy-saving appliances. The suggested changes reduce direct emissions from owned or controlled sources such as cars and computers, as well as indirect emissions from purchased electricity, heating, and cooling.

Federle said significant carbon reductions could be achieved by such things as “activating sleep mode after 5 minutes” on computers, “reducing waste disposal by composting, and using public transport instead of private transport”.

Working from home provided the largest carbon-reducing impact. The study also found that by changing the mode of transport, emissions can be reduced by 90.4% to 100%. The report also quantified the impact of ridesharing, public transportation, walking, riding bicycles, and using combinations such as taking a bus halfway to work and walking the rest of the way.

The research was conducted both prior to and during the most recent COVID-19 lockdown in the Australian Capital Territory and the recommendations assume that COVID-19 does not limit or otherwise impact operational scenarios going forward.

“Our students have produced outstanding results and have not let campus closure hamper their progress,” Galvin said of the August 13 lockdown after Semester 2 had operated with hybrid remote and in-person teaching for the first weeks of the semester.

The final report provides a recommendation for a reduction of carbon dioxide  emissions below the company’s emissions in the 2020/2021 financial year as outlined in Shoal’s public disclosure statement. It offers multiple approaches to reach a carbon negative status, with charts and figures allowing for easy comparison and assessment for implementation feasibility. Only changes that fulfill all operational needs of the employees at Shoal were offered as recommendations.

The team said that if Shoal is indeed able to achieve carbon negative with the aid of their recommendations, it will be “a huge step for the industry towards a greener future” and “provide a standard for other companies to work towards.” 

Additionally, they say, it will be a small step in helping Australia fulfil its promises under the Paris Agreement.

Isabella Federle, Andrew Catchpole, Hayden Broomby, and Zoe Webb collaborate on carbon negative recommendations. Not pictured is Will Ertler who contributed via remote.

Updated:  10 August 2021/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing