Renewables barely feature in building programme for 500 schools

Liz Lightfoot
Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

It is a modernist version of a log cabin nestling in a busy south London suburb – and it is about to make history. The new building for Hackbridge primary, in Sutton, opens next week as England’s first zero-carbon school, able to produce and conserve as much energy as it uses, and even put unused electricity generated back into the grid.

With its wood frame and cladding, solar panels, pumps to collect heat from the ground, and insulation made from recycled newspaper, it is the first school in England to meet the ambitious Passivhaus Plus low-energy design standard.

“The school will have no net demand on an annual basis, for electricity and no gas connection,” Architype, the architects, say.

Sadly, however, only a handful of the 500-plus schools being rebuilt or refurbished across the county through the government’s £4.3bn priority school building programme are installing renewable energy technology – and the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) recommended designs do not include renewables. Hackbridge’s new building was subsidised by Sutton council as part of its broader environmental strategy.

High Weald academy, in Cranbrook, Kent, is one school whose new buildings, officially opened last month, do not have the technology to harness green energy. And in Birmingham, work is being completed on new buildings for Colmers school and sixth form college to offer “modern facilities” with an emphasis on “quality and innovation throughout the building programme”. Again, there are no solar panels or heat pumps, two of the most cost-effective ways of harnessing green energy.

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In Watford, Hertfordshire, Westfield academy’s light and airy building, opened three years ago, was hailed by its headteacher, Tim Body, as “a remarkable new building for the 21st century”. It has a fully equipped design and technology rooms, ICT suites, a professional theatre, dance studio and a modern beauty salon. It, too, is not equipped to harness green energy.

In fact, of the 260 schools rebuilt or replaced across England between 2015-19 in the first phase of the programme, very few use renewable energy – nor do most of the further 277 schools being refurbished in the second building phase to 2021.

But one secondary, in Somerset, is taking a stand, rejecting the plans for its rebuild, unveiled last month, on the grounds that the design does not meet the aspirations of parents, pupils and staff to protect the planet. They say new premises for Kingsmead, the 880-pupil secondary school in Wiveliscombe, Taunton, provide an opportunity to make carbon savings and reduce energy bills.

Liz Pow, the school’s director of finance and operations, says: “Unfortunately, as the project is managed by the Department for Education, we don’t have any input into the energy efficiency of the build. The topic of renewable energy was raised several times during the consultation process as students, staff, parents and the wider community feel it should be an important feature of any new school.”

Hackbridge primary’s wood frame, cladding, solar panels and pumps means it is able to conserve more energy than it uses. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Mark Blaker, an independent district councillor, has written to Rebecca Pow, the local Conservative MP and a junior environment minister, asking her to intervene. “This will be the biggest building for a 10-mile radius. It will be a statement of our community aspirations and our hopes for generations of young people to come. Ignoring the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy in the much-needed new building feels like a betrayal of those aspirations,” he says.

Colin Diamond, professor of education at Birmingham University and a former Kingsmead parent and governor, says: “It’s astonishing to learn that the DfE is not leading by example here. It continues to procure new school buildings with no apparent awareness of sustainability and regenerative economics. This is a golden opportunity to create a carbon-neutral learning environment where students can find out about energy efficiency first hand in their own community school.”

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Caroline Buckingham, a member of the ethics and sustainable group of the Royal Institute of British Architects, explains that contractors and designers on the DfE’s priority programme work to generic briefs. “The frameworks go out to contractors who have usually built lots of schools and have got meeting the DfE’s standards down to a fine art. There are no bells and whistles, no wriggle room for innovation because these buildings were approved during times of austerity, based on pound per square metre,” she says.

“Sometimes you get a really good local authority that is pushing sustainable building and includes renewable technologies, but it is usually for smaller primary or special schools.”

James Eades, operations director of the energy consultancy firm Energymyway, says school roofs are usually perfect for solar panels – but the people paying for the build may not be interested in reducing ongoing running costs.

Changes in government policy, such as the reduction in 2016 in the price paid for solar energy exported to the grid, have hit the industry hard in England – since then, the number of registered installers has gone down from 5,000 to 1,600, he says.

“However, since the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations we have been getting more inquiries for solar panels from people who want it for environmental reasons, not purely on investment grounds,” he says. “Often when schools fit panels to existing buildings, it is the parent teacher associations that fund them.”

As school buildings are occupied during daylight hours, electricity can be used as it is generated. On present prices, the costs of panel installation, between £38,000 and £50,000, would be recouped within five to seven years respectively, he says.

The DfE, however, says its priority build programme does address environmental performance. “Reduction in energy use in new buildings is a key priority and DfE-delivered schools are designed to be straightforward buildings, easy to use with simple built forms which adopt a ‘fabric first’ approach limiting the amount of energy required in their operation,” said a spokeswoman.

The DfE is working with Innovate UK, the quasi-government innovation agency, to develop a model of sustainable future schools, she adds.