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Stanford University’s campus has come a long way from the world-class horse racing and breeding facility that it originated as, and over the years, The Farm has shifted from being a leader in horsepower to a leader in renewable power.

Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI), a program developed by the Department of Sustainability, Utilities & Infrastructure within Land, Buildings, and Real Estate, marks the latest revolution of the university’s energy supply. SESI has helped the University take major strides in its Energy and Climate Action plan, which was first set forth in 2009 and has continuously been updated with the goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions for the university by 2050.

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Latest Transformation of Stanford’s Energy Supply

In 2015, as part of the Stanford Energy Systems Innovations (SESI) program, a new Central Energy Facility (CEF) was built, and the  cogeneration plant and ice plant were retired. SESI transformed the university energy supply from a 100% fossil-fuel-based combined heat and power plant to grid-sourced electricity and a more efficient electric heat recovery system, helping Stanford achieve 100% renewable electricity.

While SESI was independently developed by Stanford from 2009 to 2011, it may be the first large-scale example in the world that employs the technology roadmap for building heating and cooling outlined by the International Energy Agency, which the United Nations Environment Programme discussed in a comprehensive report for district-level implementation. The new heat recovery system, along with Stanford’s solar power procurement, reduces campus emissions by approximately 82% and saves 18% of campus potable water.

Plan Approval

In December 2011, Stanford’s Board of Trustees gave concept approval to the Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI) project, which is a collection of operationally distinct initiatives designed to meet the university’s energy demand while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption. In its first year of operation, the SESI project reduced campus greenhouse gas emissions by 68% from peak levels, along with saving 18% of campus potable water. These savings will continue to increase because the project opens up the energy supply to future technologies and enables the campus to better manage its power portfolio by incorporating renewables. 


Implementation of the SESI program involved significant work throughout the campus between 2012 and 2015. The Department of Project Management oversaw the design and construction of 22 miles of hot-water pipe, conversion of 155 buildings to receive hot water instead of steam, and installation of the Central Energy Facility (CEF) and the new campus high-voltage substation. View a time-lapse video detailing construction.

This work was carefully sequenced in multiple phases to minimize disruption to campus life. As each phase of piping and building conversion was completed, that section of campus transitioned from steam to hot water via a regional heat exchanger that converts steam from the existing cogeneration plant to hot water at a district level. A full transition from the cogeneration plant to the new CEF took place in April 2015. The regional heat exchange stations were subsequently removed, and the cogeneration plant decommissioned and removed to make way for new academic buildings within the campus core. 

This transition increased safety, reduced energy lost in the heat distribution system, and reduced system operating and maintenance costs. In addition to this new thermal energy facility and major changes to the campus heating and cooling distribution system, a high voltage substation with interconnections to the campus grid in ten different locations was installed to increase the capacity and reliability of the campus electrical system.