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James Smurthwaite focuses on energy efficiency in the UK’s School Estate

Schools are regularly in the news but the issue of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete or RAAC has focused attention on the buildings themselves in a way not often seen.

Whether we are talking about the Victorian-era buildings that stand as a testament to architectural prowess or the more modern structures that have been built since, the UK boasts an eclectic and diverse range of educational facilities.

One other issue in the news these days is growing concerns about climate change and the increasing need to reduce carbon footprints,

That means there's an urgent need for these educational facilities to adopt energy-efficient measures.

Here's a closer look at the current condition of school estates in the UK and the pressing need for building condition improvements and energy conservation.

There are several measures that school estates can adopt to reduce energy consumption:

James Smurthwaite James Smurthwaite Group Net Zero Director at Green Net Zero Ltd

The current condition

Quite a large portion of the UK's school buildings are ageing, with some even dating back to the 19th century.

While these structures have historical significance, they often lack modern insulation, efficient heating systems, and other energy-saving features. This results in higher energy consumption, leading to increased costs and a larger carbon footprint.

Moreover, even some of the newer school buildings, constructed in the latter half of the 20th century, were built during times when energy efficiency was not a primary concern.

As a result, they too are plagued with inefficiencies that contribute to wasteful energy consumption.

The issues are significant, with research showing that around 24,000 school buildings are actually beyond their estimated design life.

The Environmental and Economic Impact

The environmental implications of high energy consumption are well-documented.

Schools, like other large institutions, contribute significantly to the UK's overall carbon emissions. In fact, the latest figures presented by the Department for Education and LocateED have stated that the education estate represents 36% of the total UK public sector building emissions. Reducing energy usage in these establishments can play a pivotal role in the nation's efforts to combat climate change.

From an economic perspective, schools that consume more energy face higher utility bills. The Department for Education estimates the total energy spend to be £1.67bn this year, up £1bn from pre-covid figures. This diverts funds from educational resources, extracurricular activities, and facility upgrades.

Funding streams for improvement works have to come directly from school budgets, or grant opportunities such as the Energy Efficiency Fund (EEF), Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS) or CIF (Conditional Improvement Fund).

In an era where budget constraints are a genuine concern for many educational facilities, energy efficiency can lead to substantial savings, removing the extreme financial pressures that plague the sector.

The Path Forward: Embracing Energy Efficiency

Several measures can be adopted by school estates to reduce energy consumption:

Retrofitting: Older buildings can be retrofitted with modern insulation, energy-efficient windows, and low-carbon heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. This can drastically reduce energy consumption without compromising the historical integrity of the structure if designed correctly.

Renewable Energy: With the school estate covering 514 million m², there is a considerable opportunity to invest in renewable energy sources, such as solar panels or wind turbines. Not only does this reduce reliance on fossil fuels, but it also serves as an educational tool, teaching students about sustainable practices.

Behavioural Changes: Simple behavioural changes, like turning off lights when not in use, can make a significant difference. Student-led eco committees can launch awareness campaigns to educate other students, staff, parents and even the wider community about the importance of energy conservation.

Regular Maintenance: Ensuring that all systems are running efficiently through regular maintenance checks can prevent wastage. For instance, a malfunctioning HVAC system can consume more energy than one that's in optimal condition.

The condition of school estates in the UK presents both a challenge and an opportunity. While many buildings are not equipped for energy efficiency, the potential for change is immense. By investing in energy conservation measures, schools can play a crucial role in the UK's sustainability efforts, all while providing a better, more inspirational learning environment for their students.

James Smurthwaite is Group Net Zero Director at Green Net Zero Ltd