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Lessons from a solar education

Giles Hanglin explores the opportunities for schools looking to make a capital investment in solar power

Posted by Stephanie Broad | June 03, 2015 | Sustainability

In a challenging economic climate, which has impacted on the public and independent sector alike, the need to manage costs is more important than ever. One of the largest bills for any school is its energy usage. With many schools turning to out-of-hours activities for the local community to raise funds, energy consumption is a key area of focus. For educators looking to keep the lights on while managing expenditure, it’s important to research the options available.

Energy efficiency is already part of the curriculum and the majority of schools are already doing great work in terms of educating users to switch lights off when not in use and turn down the central heating by a degree or two. Additionally, there has been significant investment in more efficient boilers, LED lighting and simple measures like double glazing for older school buildings.

While these efficiency measures can and do make a large difference, one of the main areas of opportunity for the education sector is on-site power generation – specifically renewable energy. Because of the diverse fabric of educational buildings, it is important to look at the right option for each environment. However, one of the most consistently effective solutions is solar power.

While ground-mounted solar panels have taken a back seat under the Conservative government, the call for rooftop solar across industrial and public sector space has been significant. In the past six months, changes have been made to the planning process, the subsidy programme and the logistical requirements, all of which make it easier for building owners and managers to install solar panels.

For example, schemes up to one megawatt (1MW) in size no longer require full planning approval as projects now qualify as permitted development. The majority of education establishments fall within this size banding, making it far easier and quicker to invest in a solar photovoltaic scheme. As many school buildings are owned or leased by the public sector, these relationships with local authorities should help further with the planning discussions.

Likewise, it will be possible, from 2019, for building-mounted solar panels to be moved to a different location without losing feed-in tariff (FiT) accreditation – something which could help expanding schools which operate across multiple sites on a rolling programme of investment. Instead of waiting 20 years before a solar PV system could be relocated, a school will be able to act as required to meet the needs of its evolving estate.

The right moves are certainly being made by policy makers to remove the barriers that were in place around planning and building transference. In addition, while the FiT subsidy programme continues to degress as planned, the overall system and installation costs of solar photovoltaic panels have also come down. It is now substantially cheaper to invest in solar than it was five years ago and this trend is set to continue.

Of course, not all schools will have the capital to make an outright investment. There are a variety of funding and leasing schemes around which allow the building owner to benefit from subsidised power without any upfront costs. There are also many co-operatives and crowd-funding initiatives – like Solar Schools and the Schools Energy Co-operative – which are designed to help education providers to raise the funds to invest in solar panels.

As community or social enterprises, these schemes allow schools to install solar systems free-of-charge and provide any surplus income back to the members. In addition, many of these programmes also provide support for lesson planning within the national curriculum. In this way, an investment in solar power can become more than just an operational issue but also a learning opportunity as well.

Rising electricity prices need not be something that headteachers and school managers accept blindly. They also present an opportunity in the pursuit of alternative forms of energy generation. Indeed, rooftop solar technology offers not only a diversification opportunity to hedge against soaring energy costs but also the ability to generate additional income.

Giles Hanglin is a director responsible for rooftop solar at Savills Energy: www.savills.co.uk/sectors/energy

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