Buildings and Places, Climate Resilience, Decarbonization, Delivering on Decarbonization, Energy, Sustainability, Transforming Los Angeles

In this Decarbonization and Climate Resilience blog series, we’re highlighting our portfolio decarbonization and sustainability experts and how they are supporting our clients to reach their net zero goals.

Calum Thompson is AECOM Buildings + Places’ Energy Planning Lead based in California. He leverages his extensive experience of buildings and infrastructure modeling to develop decarbonization and resilience plans for campuses and portfolios.

  1. Tell us a bit about yourself – your role and career journey

I’ve been with AECOM for 13 years based in the Orange County, New York and Edinburgh offices. I grew up in Scotland and from an early age I knew I wanted to do something with sustainability — something that would play a role in helping to fight climate change. I did a degree in enviro-mechanical engineering at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. After graduation, I volunteered with the organization Engineers Without Borders on a project in India to research the use of biogas to produce clean and accessible power in rural communities. When I got back, I started my first industry job as a sustainability master planner in London.

My first role at AECOM, in 2010, involved developing Excel-based models for feasibility assessments of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects across facility portfolios such as cities and military campuses. This grew into developing larger, more sophisticated models that could evaluate a range of scenarios from the impact of policy on future carbon emissions, optimize the operation of battery storage systems, or create phased decarbonization roadmaps for entire building portfolios. These models now serve as the foundation for our Energy Planning team’s core services: the development of strategic decarbonization plans and data-driven energy system design.

2. Talk to us about a project that has impacted or been a major highlight of your career. How is it solving the challenges and issues our clients and communities are facing today?

I think most engineers love the projects that actually get built. I’ve spent 90 percent of my career in strategic planning or energy systems master planning, which can have long lead times and are often very different once (and if) they’re realized. I was fortunate enough to work on the design of National Western Center (NWC) district energy system in Denver. Completed in 2022, it’s currently the largest sewer heat recovery district energy system in North America.

My role in the project involved design conceptualization, feasibility assessment, and business case development of the system as part of the wider AECOM design team. We used energy master planning as the basis of design and worked with engineers and experts across the world in areas such as sewer, water, heat recovery and wastewater systems to implement a decarbonized energy system by electrifying heating systems in cold environments. By taking advantage of the wastewater connection, providing more than 90 percent of the heating and cooling needed for the campus, the system avoids 2,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and over 15 million gallons of water per year. This project demonstrates one great way to solve the biggest pressing issue for mitigating ongoing emissions from our buildings — decarbonizing heat. 

3. Different sectors are at different stages of maturity when it comes to their energy transitions. How are we helping our clients implement decarbonization strategies and roadmaps to achieve their net zero goals?

Different sectors certainly vary and even within individual sectors, such as cities or higher education, there are wide variations to our clients’ readiness to act now. Some may not yet understand their existing energy performance or have established goals they’re working towards. Others have already implemented and are teaching us about how it can be done.   

One example is our recent work with the San Diego Gas and Electric facilities team. They had publicly announced a net zero target, but while they made great strides in the implementation of solar and established net zero requirements for new buildings, they didn’t know what else should be done and by when. In cases like this, we can help our clients to set their own vision — by educating stakeholders and conducting workshops to help them define their targets, strategies, and lay out the initial foundation to further quantify their current performance by reviewing their energy use data.

In addition to developing technical energy projects, we also help to identify organizational, educational, and financing strategies for our clients, developing a final action plan which is reflective of what is realistically achievable for that organization. Our role is to make each roadmap bespoke and unique to each individual client, empowering them to implement it successfully.

4. How do you utilize the latest technological advancements and strategies to help clients in different industries with their decarbonization efforts.

There are two primary ways that technology advancement impacts our work:

  1. Using the right tools to support our work. Internally, we are constantly innovating to accelerate processes through data analytics and feasibility assessments, allowing us to do it more cost-effectively, easily, and robustly at an early stage. For instance, I led the development of Rosetta, a web-based analytics platform funded by AECOM’s Global Challenge — a global employee ideation competition. It allows us to rapidly model energy demands of facility portfolios and the projects that can help meet the client’s carbon, cost and resilience goals. Like all the tools we develop, it’s about making smarter decisions faster. Externally, we support our clients to develop their own technological innovations. We are currently supporting a national lab to develop a new type of infrastructure planning model to understand the infrastructure implications of different planning scenarios, and to quantify and visualize the impacts on electrical infrastructure.

2. Understanding available emerging technologies. There’s currently a lot of innovation and development in energy systems for decarbonization including batteries, solar systems, heat pumps to hydrogen. Our responsibility is not only to understand the technologies and where they might apply, but also to know about procurement, market availability, performance, reliability, and associated components so we can accurately advise our clients on how to incorporate them most effectively.

Originally published Feb 9, 2024

Author: Calum Thompson