17 April 2024 Energy Data, Energy Management, Net Zero

Smart Education: Inspiring a new generation of energy managers to help schools hit Net Zero

Tom Woolley, Smart Product & Strategy Director at SMS, discusses how student-led initiatives like the new ‘Energy in Schools’ programme are revolutionising approaches to sustainability in the education sector and empowering the next generation to combat climate change.

According to the Council of British International Schools, the education sector is a significant emitter of carbon. In fact, schools in England alone are responsible for approximately 9.4 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year.

It therefore comes as no surprise that in 2022, the Department for Education (DfE) launched ‘The Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy’. The aim was for the UK to be the world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030. 

Education’s Climate Responsibility

Fast forward to last November, the environmental audit committee (EAC) cautioned that by 2050 a mere 20 per cent schools in England will reach net zero compliance. It’s clear much more needs to be done. 

The need to decarbonise their estates may be high on the agenda for Trusts, Governing Boards, Parent Teacher Associations and head teachers, not to mention their pupils. After all, they all want to ensure that their schools provide the very best environment for learning. However, what cannot be ignored is the financial obstacles that many schools face when it comes to investing in sustainability measures. Ironically, this includes the cripplingly high cost of energy experienced by schools over the past two years.

While schools clearly face a huge challenge to decarbonise, there are relatively simple and affordable steps that they can take towards lowering their energy emissions. Introducing smart meters and basic energy monitoring tools, for instance.

Empowering the next generation: student-led sustainability

In order to encourage more schools to begin adopting such measures, the DfE recently set out that every school in the UK must produce its own action plan for how they will begin to transition their school, and this is now aligned with the national curriculum. 

This provides a fantastic opportunity for children to build and champion their schools’ own energy and carbon reduction efforts. Involving and engaging pupils throughout this process is a brilliant way for schools to begin lowering their consumption and costs through creating informed awareness amongst the school’s main users – the students themselves – to drive action. 

Running in parallel with this is the fact that it can teach students invaluable skills, potentially inspiring them to become the energy managers, engineers, and environmental advocates that our society will so desperately need in the future as we continue to combat climate change. 

Innovative solutions: Energy in Schools programme 

One particular initiative that has seen success through following this student-led approach is the Energy in Schools (EiS) programme – a joint collaboration between the DfE, MyUtilityGenius, and SMS plc. There have already been successful trials carried out in selected schools, with the programme now being rolled out nationwide following very positive early results.

The starting point is to provide schools with a clearer understanding of their energy usage across their buildings. This is first achieved through the installation of smart meters, and then by giving teachers and students access to Microbits  – small devices that can be programmed to capture consumption data and record it accurately in near real time. The students are taught how to do this through interactive lesson plans that are a fundamental part of engaging them with the EiS programme.

While the smart meters can give schools an oversight of overall energy usage, Microbits can show exactly when and where buildings are being inefficient – providing a deeper, granular level of insight. This insight, combined with smart meter data, can then help the school make more informed decisions about where energy efficiency improvements are needed around the building – such as introducing soft close doors, double glazing, or better insulation. 

Statistics that speak for themselves

What’s significant about this model is that it’s the children themselves who are empowered to lead this change through lesson plans that engage them on the impact of their school’s energy consumption, as well as their own. 

Of the 20 different schools involved in initial trials, 85 per cent of participants reported more confidence in their knowledge across energy and climate topics with a better understanding of how much energy they used and how to reduce it. 89 per cent were motivated to take action to reduce energy consumption, incentivised by the metrics provided by the EiS platform. The schools also achieved a 7 per cent reduction in energy usage from the behavioural change that the monitoring provoked. The results speak for themselves, and prove that this type of model can be easily replicated in other schools across the country.

Imagine the full potential of savings – both financially and carbon related – resulting from programmes like these if it included the installation of on-site solar panels, battery storage or heat pumps. That’s a story for another day, particularly when greater funding is made available for retrofitting creaking school buildings, or indeed the much-needed construction of newer energy-efficient properties.

Beyond the classroom: community impact of school sustainability 

And there’s also the wider benefits to the community that programmes like these can bring. For example, children educating their parents about the importance of getting a smart meter at home, and being cautious about their own energy usage. Indeed, there is an exciting opportunity for children to become the energy champions of their own households and wider communities, as well as their schools. After all, societal behavioural change so often begins with the younger generation.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that schools and those responsible for managing and governing them must urgently put the stepping stones in place to achieve meaningful decarbonisation, and there are many ways to go about it. Educating, empowering, and inspiring our children to take the lead is proving to be highly successful in this regard. The model for such a novel approach is now proven, and it should be used to replicate success right across our education sector.

This article (created and written by SMS) originally appeared in the April 2024 edition of Energy Manager Magazine as a form of contributing editorial content, and has been republished on this website with the full permission of the publishers. You can read the magazine here and subscribe at energymanagermagazine.co.uk

Discover Energy in Schools

Through engagement and technology, we’re empowering schools to turn their energy data into knowledge. Through knowledge, we can educate, inspire, and save, both energy and the climate around us.