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Martin Fahey looks at how the education sector can reduce its carbon footprint

Energy bills in the UK are increasing at an alarming rate, and education institutions are not immune from the impact of higher costs.

In 2022, some schools even reduced spending on teaching staff and cut school hours to combat costs.

The picture is similar for university students too, with 56% borrowing money to help pay their energy bills.

Add to this the current high levels of inflation, and the limited budgets that educational institutions have are being stretched more than ever, but still need to be allocated across many areas. One of these areas is sustainability, but there is a risk that as budgets are squeezed, less money will be dedicated to enhancing energy efficiency and promoting carbon reduction.

In the face of ever-stricter environmental standards and the need to keep staff and students safe and comfortable, it’s vital that strategies to become more energy efficient aren’t derailed by a tough economic climate. Luckily, reassessing how education estates heat, cool and ventilate spaces can be an effective way to both decarbonise and keep energy bills down. 

Minimising the carbon footprint of educational institutions is more important than ever

Martin Fahey Green Martin Fahey Head of Sustainability

The drive for more sustainable spaces

For both schools and universities, there is an ongoing drive towards sustainable operations in everything they do. An 2021 NUS survey found that 80% of students feel that their institutions should be doing more on sustainability, and universities have made public commitments to achieving net-zero carbon by 2050 – or sooner – in response.

There is also more pressure than ever for universities and schools to commit to reaching net-zero – for example, Students Organising for Sustainability is calling on all universities to commit to reaching the goal by 2030. Due to these demands, from both students and regulatory boards, hitting carbon emission goals will only become more important for educators, so taking action now is key.

Heating and cooling are large drivers of carbon emissions. In fact, 40% of the UKs emissions come from heating and hot water – so decarbonising education estates’ heating systems will make a significant impact on the overall sustainability of a school or university. It’s also worth remembering that when the right technology is chosen, reducing carbon and saving on running costs can go hand in hand.

Enhancing energy efficiency with heat pump technology

Heat pumps require very little energy to run and can be a more cost-effective option for schools and universities than carbon-intensive gas or oil. The technology relies on electricity, which will support schools and universities in their drive to reduce their carbon output and put them on track to meet the government’s net-zero targets.

Modern heat pumps offer a flexible and modular design which make them ideal for a variety of buildings across a range of sizes. This flexibility is a perfect choice for the education sector’s wide variety of spaces, from small offices and classrooms in schools, to large student accommodation blocks and lecture halls at universities.

Schools and universities are made up of a diverse mix of buildings, including facilities such as gyms, canteens, and sports halls, and need solutions which can address different occupancy levels and uses.

Requiring only water and an electricity connection, heat pumps are also a low-maintenance technology that will reduce pressure on stretched school and university engineering teams and result in a lower number of callouts.

By installing more reliable hardware, engineering teams will have more time to improve the school’s sustainability measures and spend less time fixing broken appliances.

The addition of low-carbon air conditioning

Keeping students cool, particularly through the summer, is vital.

Last year’s heatwave caused more than 70 school closures in high alert areas, and in some cases, air conditioning may now be a requirement to keep students safe and learning productively. 

Modern air conditioning systems use refrigerants with a lower Global Warming Potential (GWP) such as R32, which also make it is possible to lower overall carbon emissions.

With lower GWP R32,  up to 20% less refrigerant is used than in the equivalent systems, so schools and universities can keep the total amount of refrigerant used across their estate down, and hit overall sustainability targets. 

Modern air conditioning systems also offer heat recovery capabilities, so that heat energy used to cool a gym or a server room for example, can be diverted to spaces that need heating or even to the hot water supply. This not only reduces the overall energy needed to heat and cool individual spaces, but it can also help lower the carbon emissions of the whole system.

Smaller footprints

It’s clear that minimising the carbon footprint of educational institutions is more important than ever.

The government has ambitious net-zero targets, and the education sector has a role to play in ensuring the built environment reduces its carbon impact and moves to more efficient technologies. 

Adopting more efficient heating and cooling systems is a crucial step in reaching these targets, while also ensuring students are comfortable and costs are kept as low as possible.

Martin Fahey is Head of Sustainability and a Mental Health First Aider