Energy in schools

A recent project involving CSE found that schools generally have a tough time when it comes to managing their energy use. With rising energy bills across Europe, changing the way we use and produce energy is becoming more important than ever. There’s also a huge opportunity for school communities to understand more about energy use in school buildings as a learning tool and as part of climate change discussions. Karen Smith, project lead at CSE explains more about the Energy in Schools project…

Schools, sustainability and the climate emergency

Children and young people have led the way in climate action since 2018. Schools – where kids generally spend a lot of their time – teach energy and climate change within the science or geography curricula. But many lack practical, fun energy activities to support learning about energy within the school environment.  

Schools are also a large user of energy in the UK. They’re often community hubs used by local people for education, sporting or social activities. This high community profile, coupled with the need to cut fuel bills and to educate children and young people about the climate emergency, makes them key locations to support learning about energy and how to reduce its use. The Department for Education is beginning to recognise this, with the release in April 2022 of its Sustainability and Climate Change strategy.

Energy in Schools platform – free resources

CSE has been working with UK schools in partnership with Samsung, MyUtilityGenius and Lancaster University since 2018 on the Energy in Schools project to create an innovative energy management platform for schools – with pupils and teachers involved at every level.

The Energy in Schools website uses a unique combination of smart metering and BBC’s micro:bit technology to give staff and pupils an in-depth view of how their school uses energy and where and how they can take action to use energy more wisely. Micro:bits – small multi-feature devices used to teach computer coding – can be programmed as temperature, light and movement sensors to learn about the school environment. For example, a micro:bit could record the temperature in the hot and cold spots in a school, or to find out how temperature changes related to light and the opening of doors or windows.

The Energy in Schools website is tailored to different categories of school energy user: facilities managers, business managers, teachers and pupils. The website includes:

  • Cross-curricular lesson plans on topics like energy and climate change, carbon intensity and battery storage for Key Stages 2 and 3
  • Integrated computer coding of BBC micro:bits
  • Energy champion activities to put learning into practice within school
  • School energy consumption presented in different formats – for use by teachers, pupils and senior staff to monitor and reduce fuel use.

The project also explored school staff’s experiences around getting smart meters installed, energy procurement and fuel bill information, plus current practices and attitudes within schools to managing and reducing energy consumption. 

Energy in Schools – key learnings

We found that:

  • Schools may have multiple energy meters - possibly with different suppliers – making it difficult to get a ‘whole picture’ of school energy consumption. Their fuel bills may lack basic information like tariff rates. Switching tariffs can incur hidden fees.
  • School buildings can be a hodgepodge of new build, Victorian stonework and ‘temporary’ portacabins – an energy efficiency nightmare, with cold corridors and sauna-like classrooms!  Grants for energy efficiency improvements are limited. A pupil-led energy audit is a good place to start, to identify quick win actions.
  • School staff are time poor. They need simple energy information and a prioritised action plan.
  • Coding micro:bits as sensors is an engaging way to generate data for use in other classes. 
  • You need to get everyone involved and school leadership support.
  • Measuring energy use can be very revealing! It can save the school a lot of money.

Primary school cuts electricity use by 70%

As part of the project, we looked at why this London primary school’s electricity use remained high after school hours. The figure below shows two days of electricity power demand (in kilowatts).  The pale blue columns indicate 4-7pm on each day – when you’d expect electricity use to decrease - but that isn’t the case here.  This school has electric heating, left on overnight. Ouch!

(Scale 0-28 kW)

Image of a graph showing two days of electricity power demand

The site manager experimented and switched off heating and appliances when they weren’t needed. Look at the result!  The school used 70% less electricity on identical weekdays a few weeks later.

(Scale 0-20 kW)

graph showing electricity use after switching off appliances when they're not needed

Using a cost of 20p/kilowatt hour, this school reduced its fuel bill by £60 just for those 2 days. Magic!

Spotting boiler errors

Sharp-eyed energy champions in a Somerset primary school spotted that gas was being used out of school hours on the Energy in Schools website. They also knew that the temperature increased, from a temperature sensor. They showed the head teacher, who got an engineer in to check the boiler timer settings. A head teacher in another school used graphs from the Energy in Schools website to convince a disbelieving boiler engineer that there was something wrong with the boiler settings.  It saved their school £5000 a year.

What could you do next?

The lesson plans and energy champion activities are free to download from the Energy in Schools website. Live energy data from a few schools we’ve worked with is also available to view and download for use with lesson plans. This could be useful for schools, climate action or community groups.

Schools can register their interest to find out more about school energy monitoring and micro:bit coding resources as well.

If you’d like more information about the Energy in Schools project, visit this CSE webpage

Independent evaluation of the project by Ipsos MORI is also available.

Our schools are important community spaces which can model how to address the climate emergency. They are full of enthusiastic little people that want to do stuff! Let’s do it!

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