Renew-ables in schools

There is currently a powerful drive to put so-called ‘renewable’ energy technologies into schools. In this post I outline the UK government’s advice. The full 60 page report which spearheads the government’s thinking is available here, but this post should provide a critical introduction to the top-level policy thinking about this important issue.

Renewable energy is by definition free and abundant. It is able to renew itself with each cloudless sunrise, gust of wind, or forest growth. Renewable energy may be able to renew itself over short time periods, but it cannot renew itself over long time periods. It is important to raise this issue early, many assume renewable means free energy forever.

Consider what happens when a wind-turbine breaks. Professionals drive to the site, climb the tower, identify the problem, purchase a replacement and install it. All of this takes energy, especially liquid fuel – a finite resource. When the fuel runs out, the wind-turbine repair man may no longer be able to get parts, let alone drive them to the site and install them. The same applies to all kinds of complex renewable energy systems, whether they harness energy fluxes through wind, solar, water or biomass media. So the term ‘renewable’ can be misleading, and most complex renewable technologies cannot last in the long-term, as they depend on fossil fuels for their manufacture and maintenance. I’m glad I got that off my chest, now onto how these technologies are supposed to fit into schools.

The main benefits are designed to be:

  1. Reduced energy usage;
  2. Contributing to more ‘sustainable’ schools;
  3. Offering potential teaching resources.

These points provide a criteria by which renewable technologies in schools can be evaluated. A school-based renewable system which fails to provide any of the 3 benefits outlined above has failed completely; a renewable system which provides only one or two is failing to meet its full potential.

But why the focus on schools? I ask the inanimate document, which politely replies:

“School buildings are particularly important – they tend to have a long life span so should be future proofed in terms of energy use and fuel provision [note – add long-term provision of fuel to the criteria above].”

Schools should be provide “models of energy efficiency and renewable energy … in their communities and maximising their use of rainwater and waste water”. The government is clearly concerned about more than just renewable energy – an integrated approach aimed at sustainability is the vision, and renewable technologies are simply the most visible aspect of this vision.

As well as long-term fuel provision, and the three benefits listed above, there are two additional criteria by which renewable technologies in schools should be judged: Carbon savings – “all technologies will provide carbon savings compared with fossil fuel powered equipment” and economic benefits – “the cost-effectiveness of some renewable energy systems is not as good as many energy conservation measures initially, their symbolism and potential as a teaching resource for pupils may justify their greater capital cost” This is another key point to investigate.

Probably the most important thing to note about the drive to get renewable energy systems into schools is that it must fit into the broader picture of sustainability. I think for this reason the central report is structured in a way that reflects the energy hierarchy, an emerging concept in energy policy: Energy use (energy conservation), energy efficiency, renewable energy options, what 100% renewable would look like. Therefore, we now have 7 solid criteria, based on the DCSF (2007) report:

  1. Reduced energy usage;
  2. Contributing to more ‘sustainable’ schools;
  3. Offering potential teaching resources.
  4. Providing energy in the long-term
  5. Environmental benefit
  6. Economic benefit
  7. Integration with other sustainability measures

Are these the right criteria? Which ones are most important? These are decisions that will have to be made as the report moves on.


Tags: , ,

%d bloggers like this: