An education in energy

Energy has soared to the top of the political agenda. Ed Miliband’s conference speech announcing his intention to freeze energy bills has highlighted the impact of ever rising fuel prices and created a political football of the UK’s energy policy.
Why is this important to the education sector? At the most basic level the sector should plan for rising energy costs in the future whatever political party is in power. The stark reality is that our energy infrastructure is old, creaky and needs replacing. Around 30 per cent of our generating power will be closed over the next 10-15 years. Ageing nuclear power stations and coal power plants need to be replaced by lower carbon forms of power. These new sources of power plus the infrastructure to support them will cost money that will inevitably end up on our bills.  
The government is hoping that shale gas will be the cavalry coming over the hill to fend off these rising prices much as it has in the US. But for a whole host of reasons this is unlikely to be the scenario in the UK and we will be forced to rely on imported gas whose price trajectory is upwards.

By cutting out waste and promoting efficiency schools across England are collectively capable of saving £76 million a year and cutting their carbon emissions by 675,000 tonnes per year.  That is enough money to employ around 2,000 extra teachers and the equivalent carbon saved to heat and power 111,000 homes.
Guaranteed cost savings
One way that the sector can cut energy use and safeguard itself from future price rises is by using an Energy Performance Contract (EPC). This overcomes the need for upfront capital investment and is an innovative way of bringing about change and reducing risk. An Energy Performance Contract works by finding an Energy Services Company that believes it can cover the costs of energy efficiency measures through the savings on bills that they can deliver.  
Energy Performance Contracts provides guaranteed cost savings. If these cost savings are not delivered then the Energy Services Company makes up the difference. Effective EPCs are a great way to reduce risk and deliver long-term savings.
It is not just changing the infrastructure of buildings that can deliver significant energy savings. Changing the behaviour and routines of students is also important. For example Mayfield School in Greenwich cut their energy use by 12 per cent saving over £3,500 per year. These savings came from a student Action Team with no investment needed by the school. The team took responsibility for turning switches off, creating communications for the rest of the school and setting up screen savers on computer monitors to remind people to switch off.

Enhancing the curriculum
In addition to the financial savings, teachers have told us that environmental sustainability has helped to enrich the curriculum by providing different learning opportunities for students struggling with conventional classroom activities. The Work Related Learning Manager at Cardinal Wiseman School in the London Borough of Ealing said that looking at environmental issues had enable students to “understand the wider world and what’s happening. They want to do something. Looking at energy in the school means they are not shackled by academia and it gives them a voice.”

This wider connectivity and understanding will be particularly important in the future. The changing nature of energy in the UK is not just about a threat of rising prices it also provides an opportunity for the education sector to explore. Changing our energy infrastructure will create a demand for new skills and provide new job opportunities. Even during the recent recession, the ‘green’ economy has grown in real terms and is expected to employ close to a million people in the next few years.  Many of these jobs will be in the energy sector and will provide employment opportunities for young people.

Future energy professionals
The energy companies that Global Action Plan talks to on a regular basis are already highly concerned about the forthcoming skills gap and question whether our education system is alert to the need to provide young people with the skills that will be required in a de-carbonised economy. 

These concerns are already coming to fruition.  Energy companies are reporting a shortage of people with the skills needed to insulate our homes, install the smart meters that are planned to be in every UK home and build a new generation of nuclear power stations.  
Education programmes in schools can help make students aware of these opportunities and get them excited about a career in the new low carbon economy. For example, we have seen a massively positive reaction from students when a school has incorporated smart energy meters into their curriculum activities. Students have used the smart meters to see how much renewable energy the school is generating, to gain an understanding about the surges in energy demand during peak periods and to measure the amount of energy being used when the school is closed for business.
Based on this evidence one school decided to re-arrange its’ out of school activities so that it only had to heat and light one part of the school buildings rather than the whole site saving a considerable amount of money and carbon. This highly practical example shows that by taking a keener interest in energy use schools can save money, reduce carbon and create a group of more engaged and motivated students who will have the skill sets required in a new economy.

Further information