Lucy Fitzgerald highlights the financial and environmental benefits of more switched-on energy management in schools

The role of the bursar/business manager has never been easy – holding the purse strings, maintaining budgets and looking at funding, all while trying to focus on the heart of a school: education. Today’s schools face another major challenge: the rising cost of energy. With the steep rise in these costly overheads, the need to raise awareness on how, when and where energy is being used in schools – and how usage can be reduced to save money – has moved up the agenda. Even more so in 2006-07, as this was the ‘Year of Action on Sustainable Development for Schools’, following consultation on the Sustainable Schools Strategy published in May 2006.

The current climate provides a great opportunity for all schools to kick-start their approaches to promoting greater energy responsibility. The two examples below from two Kent schools demonstrate how schools can develop a stronger focus on energy responsibility.

Smart metering
As part of a trial with the local authority, Langafel Church of England Primary School and New Ash Green Primary School had ‘smart metering’ installed in their buildings – a sophisticated means of metering, whereby energy usage data is collected automatically every half hour. Initially installed as a way of generating accurate energy consumption figures, the meters soon delivered many other benefits.

With smart metering there is no need for a meter reader to visit the school, eliminating the worries and inaccuracies resulting from infrequent readings and overcoming issues around site access and security. A key advantage is that schools can access all this information directly through a simple online energy management tool.

Why it pays to learn more about energy usage
By making more information available to the school, you gain total visibility on energy usage across the entire site, and specific information, such as when and where the energy is being used, can be determined. Mrs Pullen, bursar at Langafel School, found this particularly useful when analysing electricity bills.

She became aware there were problems with the electricity figures in October 2005 when she received a bill that had apparently been produced from an actual meter read. The school had been closed for half-term and the bill was much higher than would be expected for a four-week period. As a result, the school didn’t pay this questionable bill and, using an online energy management tool, delved into past data to see actual energy usage from the period in question. It became clear a billing error might have occurred, as the energy used did not reflect the billed figure. The school was able to demonstrate the billing error to the supplier and the school was given a corrected bill for September 2005 to July 2006. To avoid future errors, overpayments and estimated bills, the school’s electricity supplier now receives the data automatically and the school has far more awareness of its utility bills – helping it control expenditure.

Another big advantage for schools with access to this data is that the information can be used for budgeting and forecasting. Mrs Ames, bursar at New Ash Green School, is looking to analyse the energy used in the school hall versus the costs of hiring it out for out-of-school clubs and activities, so a sensible hire cost is applied.

Greener schools – and student power
With an already strong environmental focus, both schools are registered as Eco Schools, part of the nationally run Eco-Schools programme sponsored by ENCAMS. With support provided by a designated project officer, funded by Kent County Council, the schools are given assistance to achieve Eco-Schools accreditation.

The concept follows a simple framework that is heavily focused on student involvement in the form of an action team, working together to identify and analyse the environmental impacts the school has on the environment and community around it. The concept helps educate energy users on how to become more responsible.

This year, Langafel’s Eco School focus is energy consumption. Year 6 students have been looking at ways in which energy can be saved in school. The introduction of the online energy management tool to the classroom has given the children first-hand interactive experiences. They can see the impacts of their energy usage right before their eyes.

For example, students were provided with print-outs of each day for the week beginning 15 January, and were able to identify on the graphs when power cuts had occurred in the evenings. Students interrogated the data and reported their findings. They were able to identify the timings of the computer club and badminton club on a Tuesday and Thursday, and question why at the weekend there was movement on the graph despite the school being closed and with no lettings. They quickly identified that appliances such as security lighting, the fridge in the staff room, computer servers, the answer phone and CCTV would all use power. The following week when the same group received a print-out, they could see a rise in energy consumption and linked this to the fact it was colder so more heating would be required.

A current experiment includes listing all equipment and turning the unnecessary equipment off over the weekend and during lunchtimes, then revisiting the data to show if a drop in energy consumption has taken place. Even Mrs Pullen was amazed at the difference that turning appliances off could make.