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British schools could do better on energy to help meet UK climate goal

by Estelle Byrne | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 10 July 2020 14:55 GMT

A classroom at St John's Primary School as some children returned to the school as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown eases in Fulham, West London, Britain, June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Coombs

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Retrofitting more UK schools could cut emissions and energy costs and improve comfort - but resources to do it are limited

By Estelle Byrne

LONDON, July 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In aging schools across Britain, draughty windows, outdated lighting and decrepit boilers can make classrooms uncomfortable - and energy bills high.

With government funding tight and schools often focused on providing just the necessities, improving energy efficiency can seem a luxury - but it's not as costly or difficult as many schools think, London energy efficiency experts said.

In the west London borough of Hounslow, putting rooftop solar panels, LED lighting and other energy-smart upgrades into 23 schools, using tax-free government loans, has led to electricity savings of more than a quarter in recent years, said Charles Pipe, the borough's energy manager.

In one school, electricity use plunged by 63%, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He remembers telling dubious school administrators, "I'm going to save you 30% on your budget and you don't have to do anything. You probably think it's too good to be true - but in this case it is true."

Neil Pearce, who works on energy and sustainability for the east London borough of Barking and Dagenham, said in an online event for London Climate Action Week that the school changes are proving "a lot less effort than everybody thinks".

Britain's government in late June announced a billion pounds ($1.26 billion) in funding to rebuild 50 schools across England, as well as 560 million pounds for school repairs, and noted that making schools greener was one of its aims.

That push is part of the country's commitment, made a year ago under pressure from climate activists, to produce by 2050 no more planet-warming emissions than it can offset or store.

To achieve that net-zero goal, Britain needs to make green aims - including job-creating building retrofits - a major focus as it spends billions to restart its coronavirus-hit economy, the advisory Committee on Climate Change urged last month.

Harriet Lamb, CEO of climate charity Ashden, which has worked with British schools on cutting emissions and energy bills, said "every pound spent sorting out leaky and energy-guzzling school buildings can be money invested into our children's learning".

Ashden has called for all state-funded schools to be retrofitted to a net-zero emissions standard by 2030.


The majority of Britain's schools are more than four decades old, and improving their energy efficiency could be one of the most cost-effective ways to cut emissions, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

But doing the work can be challenging, London borough energy officers said - from gaining access to schools with students present to winning over busy administrators and governing boards.

Pipe, of Hounslow council, said most school business managers were initially reluctant - but some changed their minds after presentations comparing the energy efficiency of their own establishments to others in the area.

Every school wanted to "be able to say... they're greener than the school next door", he said.

Rooftop solar panels have proved a particularly popular and aspirational option in retrofits, he said.

Yet some school administrators still have reservations, namely concerns over the time and work required to manage the retrofits while keeping the school running smoothly.

"It wasn't their expertise, so they sort of stood back from it, were frightened of it," Pipe remembered.

But most came around once reassured they would have little or no extra work and guaranteed savings, he said.

Sylvia Baron, who manages energy efficiency retrofits for the Greater London Authority, said it was crucial not just to cut emissions but to provide greater comfort and cost savings.

"The core benefits of retrofitting a school are just enormous," she said during London Climate Action Week.

Yet despite big savings in energy use, relatively few British schools have so far carried out retrofits, said Pipe of Hounslow council. The slow uptake was due to many reasons, including a lack of funding and interest, he added.

A government-run, zero-interest loan scheme - which requires energy improvements to pay for themselves within eight years - has funded many of his borough's school investments in solar panels and low-energy lighting, he said.

But changing over fossil-fuel school heating systems to low-carbon alternatives like heat pumps will be tougher, as the technology is far more expensive and takes longer to cover its costs, Pipe said.

If pay-back periods for no-interest loans were extended, "we could do a lot more", he said.


Pressure is growing on Britain's schools to act faster on climate change, meanwhile - and not just because of the country's net-zero goal.

Student climate activists across the country have not only joined street protests but demanded their schools do more to educate pupils on climate risks and adopt greener practices.

At Graveney School in south London, more vegetarian food is now on the menu, for instance - but the high school has yet to undergo a big energy retrofit.

Geography teacher Jonathan Grove said "the want to be greener is there", whether installing solar panels, double-glazing windows, or stepping up recycling and cutting waste.

But most changes are still just ideas.

"There is no money available to pay for these upgrades," Grove said, noting that any funding the school did get would go to other pressing needs, from replacing damaged textbooks to repairing a broken stairwell.

Graveney School administrators said they were too busy to comment on the issue.

But Francesca Sparrowhawk, a 16-year-old pupil at the state school, said retrofitting should be a bigger priority here and at many other schools.

"The greenest thing about schools in the UK is their grass - and this needs to change," she said.

($1 = 0.7918 pounds)

Read more:

UK government advised to harness pandemic to speed zero-carbon aims

Clock ticks on greener homes as UK seeks jobs and emissions cuts

Lower cost, less controversy: Business case builds for energy efficiency

(Reporting by Estelle Byrne; editing by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.