Empowering schools to improve their own sustainability

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School buildings and facilities, much like the rest of the rapidly ageing building stock in Australia, are becoming increasingly inefficient and costly to run.

But the education sector has a lot to gain from upping its sustainability game, including lower bills, improved learning outcomes and opportunities to teach students about sustainability.

Unrealised carbon abatement opportunities

A 2018 report by ASBEC highlighted the education sector as having some of the most cost-effective carbon abatement opportunities within the built environment.

However, there’s been limited focus on the education sector over the years, with few national and international programs measuring the operational performance or emissions associated specifically with school buildings.

Furthermore, there’s no international benchmarking system for schools.

The education sector has a lot to gain from upping its sustainability game.
Photograph courtesy of Swinburne University

Learning inside a living laboratory

A report funded by the CRC for Low Carbon Living, released earlier this year, examined people’s attitudes towards school buildings.

There was overwhelming agreement that the built environment impacts learning outcomes of students. It also revealed a less-than-satisfactory view of school buildings, particularly of demountable buildings.

Participants also acknowledged the vast opportunities for teaching sustainability concepts using real life data collected from their buildings – where schools become a living lab for education.

This is great news, as “sustainability” forms one of the three national Cross Curricular Priorities, which schools are supposed to teach across the curriculum through various subjects.

It presents an amazing opportunity for hands-on learning for students. Fortunately, many state and territory governments around Australia have developed programs to assist schools in implementing and teaching sustainability in the classroom.

These include ResourceSmart Schools in Victoria, ACTSmart in the ACT and other resources provided to schools in South Australia and NSW.

Cool Australia, in Victoria, also has an impressive array of free curriculum resources for teachers on various sustainability and climate issues including energy and water audits.

Some states also offer a range of free government-led “area-specific” school programs. For example, in WA, there are the Waterwise, and Waste Wise Schools programs and Your Move, a program targeting sustainable transport.

Many state and territory governments around Australia have developed programs to assist schools in implementing and teaching sustainability.
Photograph courtesy of Your Move.

Closing the gap between theory and reality

However, there can often be gap between what is taught in the classroom and the operational performance of schools.

A team from Curtin University, which helped to certify the first carbon neutral school in Australia back in 2012, has been trying to address this challenge. In 2014, it produced a report highlighting the barriers and opportunities for delivering low carbon, high performance schools. 

Using this information and the experience from delivering the carbon neutral school, the team developed a two-year pilot program with 15 schools in Perth. It aimed to collate, analyse and share information on the 15 schools’ utility consumption, costs and carbon emissions, and their building infrastructure, assets and appliances data.

Its aim was to empower the schools with the information needed to make strategic decisions about how to improve their performance. Remarkably, the program helped all 15 schools become carbon neutral for their base year and revealed many intriguing things about schools.

Improving solar opportunities

Firstly, while many schools had solar on their roof, most had no idea if it was actually generating energy. This is because the solar is usually connected behind the meter, so it is not shown on utility bills.

After investigation, many schools discovered that their solar system provided very little energy compared to their consumption (some less than 1 per cent), while others found broken inverters or disconnected systems.

Another upsetting discovery in WA (and it’s similar in many other states) was that public schools are not allowed to use Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) to get solar.

many schools discovered that their solar system provided very little energy compared to their consumption (some less than 1 per cent), while others found broken inverters or disconnected systems.

PPAs would be a perfect solution for schools without access to upfront capital but have ideal solar consumption patterns and large roof space.

Water bill savings from simple checks

After auditing or counting toilets and urinals in the school, some schools discovered they were being over charged for water fixtures they didn’t have. One school saved over $4000 a year on its water bill after correcting this.

Another school found a water leak of 10,000 litres a day, which it only identified after examining its historical water consumption data.

Energy audits help school buildings save on electricity costs and reduce carbon emissions.

Better tariffs

Some schools found they were on uncompetitive energy tariffs, after comparing electricity bills with other schools. One saved over $30,000 from switching tariffs.

While this didn’t translate to an energy or carbon saving, the money saved allowed it to invest in other energy saving upgrades. Another school found that its gas pilot lights were lit months before it needed gas heaters, costing up to $29 per day just for the gas burning the pilot lights. 

Simple efficiencies

After counting its electrical appliances, one school found it had an unusually high number of fridges. Further investigation revealed that most had been donated by the community and were more than 20 years old. These old clunkers contributed significantly to the school’s energy consumption.

The school is now getting rid of the fridges it doesn’t need. Turning fridges and other energy intensive appliances off over school holidays – particularly the long summer break – also saved schools a considerable amount on their bills.

Starting right to stay right

The best outcome for buildings and their occupants, though, is doing things “right” from the start. This is what ASBEC’s “Built to Perform” report recommends.

Anything we build today is going to be there in the 50 years. We need it to be zero carbon now if we are going to meet our climate goals set by the international community.

Too often, money saved at the start locks in inefficiencies and high consumption patterns – and cost – for schools later. 

The education sector needs more stringent design and building codes for schools, as well as performance benchmarks, baselines and targets set to measure and improve performance within this sector over the coming years.

Schools that pay their own bills save more – local ownership works

Another issue that affects a school’s ability to implement change is who pays the utility bills and who keeps the savings.

Too often, money saved at the start locks in inefficiencies and high consumption patterns – and cost – for schools later. 

This varies across the country. In states and territories where schools pay their own bills, there’s a much greater incentive to reduce as schools feel the impact of their actions through their bills.

In states where bills are paid centrally, principals and school staff are often unaware of how much they are consuming, which makes it hard to encourage reduction.

School staff (principals, teachers and administration) are clearly not building managers – their job is to facilitate learning. But if we can find a way to combine and incentivise these two things – we could see a sustainable building revolution.

Imagine students marching around their buildings identifying inefficiencies and solutions, and if they also took this knowledge home.

This is something the team at Curtin University team are currently exploring. After the successful two year pilot, schools, through their students, can use the ClimateClever app to measure, audit and reduce their carbon footprint and utility costs.

Taking the lessons home

In 2019, ClimateClever will be releasing a home version of the app, which will be able to track the intergenerational and community impact of students taking their knowledge home and influencing their families’ behaviours.

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