Energising education's mindset

There are two social benefits to installing renewable energy on-site at educational establishments: real world cuts in carbon emissions, and the cultivation of an environmentally-aware future generation. But renewables bring more immediate benefits too: waste-free energy, energy security and, often, cost reductions and new revenue streams.

Seaton Primary won a prestigious Ashden Award in 2007 thanks to its 2.5kW wind turbine, its 4.7kW solar PV array, and its solar thermal-heated swimming pool. The wind and PV generate electricity for use on-site and have saved an estimated two tonnes of carbon per year. Headteacher Alan Simpson regularly uses assembly to update the children on their energy production, and renewable energy problems are now incorporated into maths and science lessons.

Seaton pupils proudly boast of their awareness of environmental issues and their own environmentally friendly behaviours – from switching off lights and computers, to tending to the school’s compost wormery and grass snake conservation area. As the school states: ‘caring for the environment is not just a subject to be studied – it’s an ethos’.

Multi-school projects

Not too far away, the Wey Valley Solar Schools Energy Co-operative launched the largest community share offer in the country last September and attracted £670,000, enabling it to install 50kW PV units at four Dorset schools so far. Perhaps surprisingly, grandparents comprised one of the main investor profiles. This could partly be due to the legacy issue of climate change (not wanting future generation to inherit a worse world than ours). But, as this demographic is generally less accepting of climate change than others, perhaps these investors simply see the financial sense in a guaranteed 25-year income to leave to their families and their grandchildren’s schools.

The programme also offers an educational package to bring the energy into the classroom. ‘Web boxes’ record the installations’ output data and enable teachers to incorporate local, real world examples of maths and physics problems into their teaching, as well as correlating weather conditions to unit performance in geography classes.

The project also serves as a real world case study in business studies lessons, teaching pupils first-hand about infrastructure investment. Rachael Hunter, the programme coordinator, explains that Wey Valley operates a ‘free solar’ model, which means the Co-operative retains ownership of the panels, but the schools get all the energy the panels produce for free, while the Feed-in Tariff pays the return to investors.

The early risk-takers have benefited most from solar, as their tariff is guaranteed for 25 years while recent cuts (which only apply to new installations) have pulled the rug from under the feet of those schools which might have wished to follow suit. Government has work to do to restore investor confidence, and can start by building stable degression mechanisms into its subsidies.

National Campaigns

10:10, a leading UK climate campaign group, launched a new initiative in September called Solar Schools, which helps schools raise funds to buy their own solar panels. A £5 donation buys one solar tile, and a colourful online graphic keeps track of which donor or event has paid for which tile.

E.P. Collier Primary in Reading became the first school to reach its £10,000 target just before Christmas. Project coordinator Amy Cameron highlights the importance of social media in raising awareness of the campaign, but traditional fundraising strategies made a big contribution too, including a comedy evening, a disco, and a good old-fashioned teacher gunging.

Caermon explains why the Solar Schools model benefits both school and students: “The school starts making money straight away (no payback period) and acquires a new asset, while the children are directly engaged in the fundraising, and so their own feeling of pride and achievement expands into a positive feeling towards renewables and an interest in environmental issues”.

Pupils have been very receptive to the educational package provided by Solar Schools’ partner Sunny Schools. The package comprises lesson plans, presentation slides, practical exercises, and miniature demonstration solar panels. Cathy Hill, education coordinator at Sunny Schools, says that the integration of data from on-site systems into the packages is also “in the pipeline”.

Green Universities
The Green University League Table has been published annually since 2007 by Oxford-based NGO People and Planet. You won’t find Oxford at the top of this league table though, as it ranked 103 out of the 142 universities in the 2011 table.

People & Planet’s Louise Hazan explains that energy is among the key factors in the Green League score, its mathematical significance having increased to make it now worth almost 10 per cent of the total: “Points are available both for the purchase of renewable power from the grid, and for the generation of low carbon energy on-site, including combined heat and power (CHP)”.

CHP captures the waste heat from fuel-based power generators for local use. If that fuel is biomass, then the environmental benefit is even greater.

Aberdeen generates the greatest share of electricity from on-site renewables with eight per cent. Thirty-eight universities buy green electricity from the grid (of which eight buy 100 per cent green energy), while 37 generate some of their electricity on-site, and the number with CHP installed is also 37.

Snapshots of University renewables
The first large scale wind turbine at a UK university was built at the University of Ulster’s Coleraine campus in 2008. The 800kW turbine makes the university £230,000 per year in energy sales and avoided electricity costs, and saves the planet 1,074 tonnes of CO2. The University of Westminster has installed not just solar and wind, but a 100kW biomass boiler, too

The University of Wales in Newport has been involved in renewable transport for four years, producing biodiesel from waste vegetable oil to fuel its campus maintenance vehicles. This project has generated interest from visiting schools eager to learn about biofuels.

Energy efficiency measures offer great cash and carbon saving opportunities too. Replacing old boilers and insulating roofs, while less attractive in PR terms than renewables, can also offer big savings. Salix Finance administers government loans to public sector organisations to support energy efficiency and recycling projects.

Government Support

Most on-site renewable power systems are eligible for Feed-in Tariffs (FITs). For renewable heat, many of the technologies and capacities that schools and universities could implement are covered in the first phase of the Renewable Heat Incentive.

Check the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) website for more details, particularly as the FITs are currently under review.

[1] DECC will reduce the upper end to 21p for systems installed after 3rd March
[2] The amount paid for excess electricity exported to the grid, such as during school holidays (see chart on previous page).

Student Engagement
The UK’s first BSc in renewable energy was launched by Exeter University in 2003, while the Centre for Alternative Technology (a 2011 Ashden Award Winner) has long been pioneering advanced education in renewable energy systems and principles.

The Poole Tidal Energy Partnership (PTEP) showcases several ways in which students can engage with renewable energy. Andy Hadley, PTEP co-ordinator, explains that three Bournemouth University departments are involved in the PTEP project, which is looking to raise funds and support for a community tidal energy system in Poole Harbour.

The environmental Law School is examining ‘legal and environmental impacts’; the Sustainable Design Research Centre is looking into the ‘technical aspects of potential solutions’; and three student teams from the Business School are involved, too. ‘Visionality’ is working on the business case (economic and social feasibility); ‘Future Adapt’ is focusing on PR and awareness campaigns, while ‘Versatile Consulting’ is ‘project managing across the three schools’.

Change Agents, a graduate-level environmental engagement and employment network, works with NUS and the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges (EAUC) to promote sustainability within universities. Change Agents’ Education coordinator Hanna Plant, who helped spur the sustainability drive at St Andrews (which is currently seeking planning permission for a 12MW turbine), sums it up: “Schools, colleges and universities are under increasing financial pressure, and increasing pressure to deliver on environmental objectives. This is a business challenge, requiring innovative new thinking and the consideration of new investment opportunities. Energy efficiency and renewable energy projects tick all the boxes in this regard”.

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