Secondary schools have been warned to prepare for the introduction of new display energy certificates this autumn. If action is not taken now it could prove expensive, says education writer Angela Youngman

As from 1 October 2008, all public buildings over 1,000 sq metres, including schools, will have to display a certificate giving details of annual energy consumption, assessed on a rating from A to G, where A is the most energy efficient and G the least. Both existing and new-build properties are affected by the legislation. For many schools, the requirement will come as an unwelcome surprise at a busy time of the year, as the announcement has not had much publicity.

The certificate will look a little like the energy rating certificates seen on new fridges and washing machines. Where there is more than one building, a separate Display Energy Certificate (DEC) will have to be displayed in every building which occupies more than 1,000 sq metres of floor space. The certificate, which has to be renewed every 12 months, has to be displayed in a prominent place that is visible to members of the public who may be visiting the site.

The DEC has to be accompanied by an advisory report, making recommendations on how the building’s energy performance can be improved. This report does not have to be on view, but it must be kept in the files and acted upon. Once issued, the report is valid for seven years.

Failure to display a certificate is punishable by a fine of £500, and failure to have an advisory report, by a fine of £1,000. This certificate would apply to all appropriate buildings. It should be placed on view in the most public spot, such as a lobby or foyer used by the public. Copies need to be placed in each building to which it applies.

A muddled message
The regulations are a muddle. While official websites suggest that schools with more than one large building will need separate certification, others disagree. As schools often have a miscellany of buildings – some linked, some not – within their site, it is not easy to say what a building actually is.

So, some lawyers argue that, for the purpose of the DEC, a school is treated as one site. So, if there are several buildings on the site, each totalling over 1,000 sq metres, only one DEC is required. No one is clear as to who will check whether or not a school has a DEC or if it is accurate. Will it be the local authority, an independent body or health and safety? It may take months to find out the answer.

In general, independent schools are exempt from these regulations. However, there is an exception to this rule. If an independent school allows its facilities to be used by outside organisations, or invites the public in; then those buildings used for that purpose might become liable.

The specialist law firm DWF recommends that independent schools should check carefully the uses to which any building occupying over 1,000 sq metres of space are put. If in doubt, measure the building and find out whether it falls into this size category or not. Many independent schools share facilities, such as swimming pools, with neighbouring state schools, or sometimes members of the public outside school hours. Likewise, theatres and arts buildings are often used as venues for public performances and workshops during school holidays and in the evenings. In such circumstances, these buildings – if over 1,000 sq metres in space – would require a DEC certificate to be issued.

The certificates have been introduced as a result of European legislation requiring all public buildings to investigate their levels of energy consumption. The aim is obvious – to identify wasteful energy usage, and seek to improve it.

The DEC must be prepared by an accredited energy assessor and there is a concern that there may be insufficient assessors to cope with the workload. The government hopes many organisations will train employees to do the job. Full details of the qualifications and training required are still being set.

Requirement for quick action
Given the short timescale, schools have to take action quickly. The accreditation process for people who will actually train the assessors was only set up in January. Assessors themselves are still being appointed, and, in many areas, have not yet been trained. This means that there will be a rush to get certificates, and the accompanying reports completed by the October deadline. DWF anticipate that the sheer volume of work may mean that the deadline may have to be postponed – but, as yet, there is no evidence that this will happen.

‘Schools will have to collect up all the energy data and arrange for an assessor to visit the school in order to complete their report,’ commented Andy Green, a partner at DWF.

This is not an issue that can be pushed to one side for dealing with later. Very little time has been given for schools to comply with the requirements. It is the headteacher’s responsibility to ensure that an appropriate certificate and report is obtained. Schools which are active participants in the eco-schools movement should find it relatively simple to obtain, having watched their energy usage for some years.

Obtaining a certificate, and taking action to improve energy ratings, is good public relations for the school. Everyone is keenly aware of the need to minimise energy usage and become environmentally friendly. There are also financial advantages – it will reduce the annual bills at a time when energy costs are constantly rising.

For headteachers, the first priority is to check the position of their school with the local education authority. Some local authorities are dealing with the matter on a central basis and may have already provided the required energy data to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Lancashire Education Authority, for example, has been active in this sector for some years. It automatically collects energy data from schools in its area every quarter. This has enabled schools in the region to identify good practice and the causes of energy wastage.

It is up to the headteacher to find out the identity of their school’s assessor and make sure that all appropriate information is available.

Collecting data
Careful preparation is essential. As Claire Chapman, partner with the real estate team at law firm DWF points out: ‘Schools should start to collect their energy consumption data immediately. This will involve actual meter readings or consignment notes for all fuels used.’

When considering energy consumption, the certificate will focus on resources, such as electricity, water, oil and gas, as well as renewable sources, like wind and solar energy. It is not just current documentation that is required – wherever possible, records should be provided covering the past three years.

Roderic Bunn, sustainable schools specialist for the Building Services Research and Information Association says, ‘Just totting up the energy efficiency of all the systems or technologies in the building is no guarantee that it’ll be operated that way. We’re seeing big gaps between aspiration and reality. There may be a difference of a factor of three or four in electrical consumption.

Of five schools I have been looking at recently, two have never had a gas bill, and two do not have any water bills. They would rather give their gas away free than run the risk of being undercharged, so they don’t recognise the meter.’ Lack of data means that schools will struggle to comply with the regulations. No one is, as yet, sure just how great that problem will be.

Another way in which schools can take action is by registering on the site. There is also a helpline: 0870 1 28 28 20. This will provide access to documents, allowing schools to begin assessing their energy consumption. It also makes suggestions on how a school can reduce its energy usage and improve its rating.

Sustainable learning can issue a sample certificate to aid the school’s preparation. To do so, the company requires:

  • details of annual energy in use in kWh for all fuels used within the school. This includes electricity, gas and oil, ideally for the past three years. If these are not available, then the minimum period should be from 1 April to 31 March 2007
  • floor area in square metres for the school buildings
  • any special, separately metered areas, such as swimming pools, catering facilities, community sports halls. Again their energy use in kWh and floor area is required.

Identifying areas for improvement
At present it is expected that most schools will achieve a D or E rating – which is why the accompanying advisory report is important. This will indicate how the school can improve its status. During the seven-year lifetime of the report, it is expected that the school will seek to follow through the recommendations that have been made in order to improve energy usage. This may involve tasks, such as improving draught proofing, or developing an energy conscious culture within the school, so that unused lights are turned and computers are not left on standby.

Having to obtain a DEC provides headteachers and governors with an opportunity to look critically at a school’s energy consumption and to identify where improvements can be made. A useful resource is the Ashden Awards, which provides a series of short films that can be used to stimulate discussion and action. For example:

  • there is an introductory film which provides a visual introduction to climate change and how UK schools and communities in developing countries are changing energy use and reducing environmental impact
  • the schools film highlights, a range of practical energy solutions in real schools, and can be used to prompt thinking about energy solutions within your school. This film is particularly suitable for members of the school management team, members of the school council and members of the premises committee.

Extra work
The process of obtaining a DEC does mean more work for headteachers. Taking into account staff time and the costs of an assessor, cynics suggest it will be a lot cheaper to pay the fine than do the work.

However, with the fast rising cost of electricity, gas and water, the DEC does provide the opportunity for a school to find ways of drastically reducing energy costs – a factor that will become increasingly important as headteachers attempt to balance their budgets.  

Further information