If somebody told you there was a way to reduce your school’s energy bill to almost nothing, you’d probably roll your eyes in mocking disbelief. But that’s exactly what Okehampton College in Devon has done. In the short space of five years, the secondary school has seen the cost of gas and electricity plummet by more than half from a whopping £1,000 a day. How? By simply switching to sustainable power sources.
The school’s eco-transformation was kickstarted by physics teacher Keith Webber. In 2008, he oversaw the installation of the building’s first solar panels, thanks to more than £50,000 in grants from the EDF Energy Green Fund, Dartmoor Sustainable Development Fund and the Low Carbon Buildings Programme . Now the college has 80 kilowatts of solar panels, 3,000 energy efficient lights and plans to have a biomass generator fitted and a wind turbine put up on a nearby hill.
After seeing dramatic savings, the head was quick to allow Keith to take a break from the classroom to pursue more eco-initiatives. His phenomenal work won the college the Ashden Award in 2010 and the international Zayed Future Energy Prize in 2012. The latter’s 0,000 prize money is being invested in continuing the college’s renewable energy schemes.
We spoke to Keith, who is now Okehampton’s first ever community energy development leader, to discover how other schools can become green superheroes.
Here are his tips for schools planning their own green revolution:
Measure to manage
Somebody told me I wasn’t going to solve the school’s money problems with a few solar panels. But we’ve reduced our gas and electricity demand by 50%. The key to our success was that rather than just measuring how much electricity we produce, we also measured how much we actually use. By doing that, we’ve been able to manage it.
Start by asking all sorts of questions about how the electricity is being used. For example, we realised the heating was coming on in the middle of the night. On a big site like our school, the number of things being left on and not being used was phenomenal, ranging from air-conditioning units to computer networks.
We were probably among the first schools to display our meters on a big screen in the building, so everyone could see our electricity usage. We also use monitoring systems with 200 circuits under surveillance. All the kids can go online and see how much electricity their room is using. You can set a teacher a target and tell them, “Last week you spent £2 in this room. Can you do £1.50 next week?”
From the 80 kilowatts of solar PV we had installed, we earned about £20,000 of feeding tariff. Previously on a bad day, we were spending around £1,000 a day and racking up a bill of £100,000 a year. A bad day for us now is £400. But there are a lot of days where we don’t even spend a penny, with a net bill of zero.
Going green is infectious
Including staff, there’s about 1,700 people on the school site. What you can do in a small primary school is a lot easier to achieve than in a big secondary school, but having solar panels has had a massive impact on pupils, staff and the wider community. We have around 120 rooms at the school and if they are not being used during the day, most of them will have their lights turned off. That wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago. People are much more conscious and they really do make an effort. So, there’s been a cultural shift.
There isn’t a subject where the issue isn’t being touched upon in some way. In science they do a module of work about climate change and energy efficiency that’s put within the context of what the school does. They go on a school tour so they can see what we’re doing to tackle climate change – it’s not something our pupils just read about in a textbook. It’s even trickled down into French classes where they have to do an environmental unit. They chose to do something about climate change and what the school is doing.
In the technology department, which is all about designing and making things, students now have to consider where they are sourcing the materials from and whether it is a sustainable supply. Pupils also consider how to cut the material up to minimise waste, what can be recycled and, if it is an electronic product, we always try and use rechargeable batteries or solar power. Part of the project brief is, when the product is no longer needed, what are you doing to make sure as many bits as possible can be recycled?
In English students were asked to carry out a persuasive writing exercise. We put in a wind turbine application and they all wrote a letter to the town council for and against the school’s planned wind turbine on the hill at the back of the building. It was a real life situation. Likewise in art, they researched an artist and had to produce a painting in their style – but the painting was a poster on how to promote sustainability.
A lot of this also gets taken home. There are now a number of houses in the area that have had cavity wall insulation and wind insulation installed, as well as solar panels, wind turbines and hydroelectric devices. It’s because the kids have gone home and told their parents about what they have learned at school and what the school has achieved. The message is going home and happening beyond the school walls because it’s in the curriculum.
Small changes make a big difference
There’s all sorts of angles on sustainability which teachers can grapple with. There’s food, energy, healthy lifestyles and more. In a big school, it’s very difficult to cover everything, so you have to be selective about what you’re going to have a stab at first. My suggestion would be to choose energy because very often that’s the one where you’ll save the school a lot of money. But you need to find a way to measure it. If you don’t, it will get out of control because you won’t have visibility of how much you’re wasting.
Then look into your heating system. A lot of schools don’t even know how to turn it on or off or access the controls. There’s very often no distinction between holiday times and term times. The difference between a bill of £10,000 and £60,000 is to do with turning it on when you need it and off when you don’t. There’s an assumption that one little bit won’t make a lot of difference, but the kids in my school went round and counted 3,000 lights in our building. One light, no big deal. But 3,000 is significant. So, being aware that little bits do make a difference is important.
Then you need to know how to control it and a computer network is a great example. A computer network left on all the time will cost a fortune. In a big school it could cost you an extra £20,000 to £30,000 a year. You would not believe how much energy is wasted in schools and it’s only until you stop and take a look at it and start asking the questions, you begin to realise the extent of the problem. Most teachers work hard trying to educate kids and all they are focused on is teaching and learning. They don’t have time to worry about anything else. But in terms of bills and energy saving, if you get a grip on it, it can make a lot of difference.
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