It is hard to ignore the role of school leaders in tackling climate change. Not only do schools educate and influence the next generation but they are important hubs within every community. With 30,000 spread across the UK, their sustainable operation could make a significant difference, from increasing use of renewable energy to reducing landfill waste.
In the UK, the previous government drew up a national framework encouraging all schools to become ‘sustainable schools’ by 2020. It explained how to go about this through eight pathways of sustainability, such as food and drink and travel and traffic. As part of its push for school autonomy, the coalition government has stopped actively supporting the framework, but you can find more modest ‘top tips for sustainability in schools’ on the government website. The problem is, that with unprecedented change in other areas of education – everything from school meals to SEND provision – school leaders may struggle to fulfil even more demands for curriculum space, no matter how worthy the cause and how strong their desire to help.
Solar panels However, there are very persuasive arguments for schools to take up government recommendations on sustainability. Perhaps most persuasive is the argument for installing solar PV systems (solar panels) which not only have environmental benefits but can potentially save a school anything up to £8,000 a year.
According to Friends of the Earth, schools running solar PV can make savings in three ways. The electricity generated by panels while the school is operating can be used for free, cutting the electricity bill. The school will also get paid for every unit of electricity the panels produce, whether it is used in the school or sent to the grid. This is called the ‘feed-in tariff’ and the rate is fixed by government. Finally, the school will receive extra money for any electricity that is not used (during school holidays, for instance), through the ‘ex-port tariff’, which is sent to the grid for others to use. Combined, this all adds up to a reliable source of income.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change recently published guidance for schools on solar PV, as part of a commitment to establishing 15 per cent energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020. But the organisation really shouting about the benefits is Friends of the Earth, which has launched its Run on Sun campaign to help and encourage schools to ‘go solar’. Run on Sun boasts some appealing statistics about the potential benefits. If all UK schools ran on solar power it could save enough money to pay more than 6,000 teacher salaries every year. It would also save as much polluting carbon dioxide as taking 110,000 cars off the road. There are educational advantages too, with teachers using the solar panels to spur interest in science and technology or to inspire wider environmental activities such as eco-clubs.
Local authority Unfortunately, like so many good ideas that school leaders would love to adopt, tight budgets are a barrier. Although the panels will save money in the long run, the cost of installation is an upfront fee that schools cannot afford, costing between £20,000 and £60,000 for a 15-50 kW system. The good news is that a key focus of the Run on Sun campaign is to make it easier for schools to finance installation. There are currently several possible ways to do this. The method encouraged by Friends of the Earth is for a local authority to fund the initial outlay. This method was recently successful for Saltaire Primary School in Bradford. Saltaire needed a new roof in 2013, and as the school is maintained by the local authority, the council was responsible for the replacement of the roof. The school governing body wanted to install a solar PV system at the same time as the roof was being replaced. Due to the short timescale involved, the council explored how it could pay for the upfront cost of the panels which the school would then ‘pay back’ through the electricity savings and the feed-in tariff. This scheme was agreed by the council and the school, and a 24kWp system was installed during the summer holidays. Bradford Council is now exploring how it can support all of its suitable schools to go solar over a three‑year period, using the schools capital budget to provide a revolving fund.
Friends of the Earth is actively engaged with another 20 LAs, and counting, to encourage this to happen in other areas. Because solar power produces a reliable income, another promising source of capital could be businesses and investors. Borrowing in this way might seem like a daunting prospect for schools already facing the financial uncertainly of ongoing funding reforms, and it may not be right for all, but the savings generated can pay off the loan before becoming income for the school for the remainder of the system’s lifespan.
Even before the money is paid back there is added security, protecting schools from rising energy bills, a concern that applies as much to businesses as the residential sector. In 2012 the government estimated that some schools were seeing energy bills double the amount spent in the previous four years.
Currently however, this type of borrowing is not allowed for local authority schools and academies without permission from the Secretary of State for Education. Friends of the Earth is working with the government to solve this problem. And, if the government is serious about meeting its renewable energy target, not to mention inspiring the next generation to look after the planet, then making it easy for schools to go solar seems like a perfect way forward.