Chiang Mai University going green and smart

Tus Werayutwattana reports on Chiang Mai University's new research into sustainable waste management which it hope will point the way for the city.

By | Thu 1 Aug 2019

Chiang Mai University is like a small town. It has a population of about 30,000 plus people as well as its own facilities, including hospitals, research centres, its own public transportation system, dormitories, banks, a sports stadium, etc. Such inclusiveness sets it apart from other northern universities, allowing it to take great strides in using its unique ecosystem to implement its own miniature version of a smart city, a model which, if successful, Chang Mai city itself can follow.

In accordance with the economic roadmap, Thailand 4.0, seven provinces have been assigned to pilot smart city developments, Chiang Mai being one of them, with Nimmanhaemin as the designated area. Since it’s only been a year since the announcement, and because of the government’s sluggish pace, it may be years before we see any change.

Interestingly enough, Chiang Mai University is developing its own parallel initiative, in hopes that Chiang Mai can learn from (and perhaps even speed up) its own implementation.

Energy cmu3

“Around five years ago, we had a discussion with the prime minister about waste management, which took off a year later,” explained Asst. Prof. Dr. Pruk Aggarangsi, Director of Energy Research and Development Institute-Nakornping, Chiang Mai University (ERDI-CMU). With a 75 million baht budget, the university has since invested in waste segregation and disposal facilities. The first priority was to segregate biowaste, and this is where the cafeterias played a major part. A dedicated station to throw away leftovers reduced a vast amount of the biowaste, which was usually mixed up with other garbage. Then there was also the segregation bins, which had about as much success as most attempts in Thailand.”

According to Asst. Prof. Dr. Pruk, all of the university’s biowaste now ends up at the university’s fermentation plant in Mae Hia sub-district, where it’s used to produce compressed bio methane gas (CBG), similar to PTT’s NGV gas, which is used to fuel the university’s public transportation. The rest of the waste is then segregated by a machine in yet another facility the university has invested in, and the recycled material is then sold to recycle warehouses.

“We used to rely heavily on the municipality to take care of our garbage, which amounted to around 30 tonnes every day, which is exactly what most people do. We dumped our rubbish, and once it was out of our hands, it became someone else’s problem. We at Chiang Mai University wanted to change that mentality for our students. During their educational years with us, we want them to be conscious of what they are throwing away and be responsible for the environment they are living in,” continued Dr. Pruk.

He explained further, that in addition to producing gas for vehicles, the biowaste is also able to generate a small amount of electricity from yet another facility. The university’s biowaste plant is similar to the Chiang Mai municipality system, but instead of using a landfill which contaminates the soil, the plant is aboveground in a dedicated facility.

“Once the waste is bundled up in a bag and thrown away, it’s trash,” he said. “But if it’s properly segregated, it can become useful materials. Now, we don’t expect our students to be able to do 11 types of segregation like the Japanese, but at least segregate biowaste which would otherwise contaminate these recycle-able materials. The results will be seen by the students, who will then understand how they can improve their quality of life.”

Dr. Pruk went on to say that Chiang Mai University has now banned the distribution of plastic bags within its premises, while promoting students to carry their own cup to reduce plastic bottle waste. “It is a challenge. To make it cool and trendy for the students huge efforts need to be put in. We are trying to communicate through the student council. On the other hand, it’s a combat against convenience.”

Apart from the waste management system, CMU is also planning on welcoming an alternative renewable power system. In collaboration with the renewable energy company, BCPG, a Power Ledger Energy Trading System will, as of January next year, be installed, using blockchain technology, to trade energy generated through the installation of solar panels on every university building. This will allow BCPG to provide energy to the entire university ecosystem, generated from the 12 MW rooftop solar power system. “Although, it is not an entire replacement of current energy use, after all, we still need to rely on the power security which comes from power plants to have constant power stability, this will decrease our demand for outside power, and I hope that it will send a message to the government underlining the importance of clean energy.” said Dr. Pruk.

The energy generated will offset investment from BCPG via blockchain technology, which will CMU to track energy commodities transactions. One day the university may even have surplus energy to trade elsewhere.

The university also plans to completely overhaul its water treatment system, which this is a future project.

Transportation is yet another key component to complete CMU’s vision. With renewable energy paying for in-house public transportation, the next challenging task is to handle students’ private vehicles. A few years ago, the university decided to muscle their way into forcing students to wear helmets while riding motorcycles. In spite of a few protests, the university finally made some progress. However, it’s a message that needs constant repeating. “I understand that they are young and helmets are not a cool thing to wear, so it’s a going to be an incessant fight until they really accept it. In the meanwhile, for CMU’s smart city project, a system is being developed to recognise when vehicles pass the gates. This is a security system which will allow us to manage traffic and detect things like those who are not following the rules,” said Dr. Pruk giving an example of an Orwellian surveillance system under the project’s Smart Mobility.

An application system has also been developed for students to manage their tasks, such as signing up for classes and checking times for the Purple Bus. But as the annual disastrous air pollution is creeping closer, a defensive protocol is being mapped out. “The application will also be able to alert students when the air quality reaches critical levels, nothing them as to a safe space nearby to retreat,” explained Dr. Pruk who is also an active members of the Clean Air Group which is on a mission to creating clean rooms for vulnerable groups in small communities accross Chiang Mai.

“The aim is to be a model for government bodies to study. At our research centre alone, we have welcomed municipalities from many provinces over the past year. The ultimate goal is for students to have social responsibility towards the environment they are living in whether in the college where they are right now or in the future where they take part in a bigger society, and to be competent in the digital world,” said Dr. Pruk.