Energising schools to combat climate change

Written by Jane Burns

CERES Education Outreach Manager

Energy consumption is Victorian schools\’ greatest impact on the environment and a significant contributor to climate change. With the current Victorian Government committed to addressing climate change issues, now is a good time to talk about how schools can make an impact for our global future.


A really important aspect of addressing climate change in schools is purchasing power from renewable sources like wind, solar, water and bioenergy. Power derived from such sources is often referred to as GreenPower. In Australia the GreenPower Program is a government managed scheme that enables Australian households and businesses to source their electricity usage from accredited renewable energy generators, who add GreenPower to the grid on their behalf.

The GreenPower Program stands out against the Australian Government\’s energy policies that continue to support coal mining and natural gas industries. Over 85% of electricity in Australia is still generated from fossil fuels and only 13% is derived from renewable energy.

Amidst these challenges, the solar industry is burgeoning and a key change is that solar and storage costs have become significantly more competitive. In the last 6 months alone, these costs have dropped by over a third of the price.

Australia now hosts 1.5 million solar power systems, which contributes to 2.5% of Australia\’s electricity needs. This equates to 18% of Australian households owning a solar photovoltaic system or a solar panel for every man woman and child in Australia. And as a nation Australia has the highest in the world number of installations per inhabitant and is ranked 8th in the world for capacity installed in 2014.

Schools undertaking the ResourceSmart Schools program adopt a Green Procurement Policy which sets out objectives to reduce impacts on the environment and human health through changing purchasing behavior including energy from renewable sources.

In term 4 2015, CERES sent information to schools about electricity contracts and how to initiate purchasing GreenPower from electricity retailers. Along with improving a school\’s ecofootprint, choosing GreenPower to replace some or all of the electricity used supports growth in the renewable energy sector and reduces demand on baseload power which in turn helps to push electricity prices down. Schools can also tick off actions in the ResourceSmart Schools modules.

Here is a school example of green purchasing power in action. Since 2010 Ruyton Girls School has run their Aquatic Centre on 100% Certified Green Power which represents at least 30% of the total electricity use in the school. By buying 100% Green Power for the Aquatic Centre, they have reduced their Greenhouse Gas Emissions by between 32 and 36 tonnes every month, which adds up to close to 400 tonnes per year!

Solar power – a revolution waiting to happen at schools!

Thousands of Australian schools have already installed rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) or solar thermal systems but this opportunity is generally under-utilised given the large roof areas found on schools, and the amount of available sunlight in Australia.

SolarSchools monitors over 1,500 Australian schools and community facilities which have rooftop solar. Through this website, these schools can access their energy data for use in the classroom, compare their solar generation with other schools and explore what other countries are doing to help reduce their energy bills.

Some of the barriers to installing solar systems can be the structural and load bearing capacity of older school buildings, however, the roof areas on Building the Education Revolution (BER) buildings, school pools and gymnasiums, have excellent capacity for large rooftop solar PV or thermal systems. Other potential areas at schools are carparks, which could have solar PV shade structures and for schools with large areas of land, a medium sized solar PV farm could be installed on the ground.

With the upfront costs of solar systems dropping rapidly, the price barriers for schools is potentially less of a factor and many schools are looking at innovative ways to raise funds such as at Northcote High School. In 2012 students from the Green Team attended the Australian Youth Climate Coalition Start the Switch Conference and came came away with the goal to “repower” the school with solar panels. They ran activities through the year to raise the money to purchase a solar panel system for the school. Northcote High recently became a 5star ResourceSmart School.

Another approach is to obtain a grant as was the case with Brunswick South West Primary School who was lucky enough to get 96 solar panels installed on the roof of their hall. From this partnership with the Moreland Energy Foundation (MEFL) and Urban Renewables, the school now has a 25 kW system which is equivalent to powering 8 homes and saves 25 to 30 % of the schools energy usage.

However, a government solar grants for schools program is essential to allow schools to take advantage of the untapped potential for solar. This assistance would greatly boost their capacity to take practical action to reduce emissions and electricity bills through installing solar power systems, while providing educational benefits for students in learning about renewable energy and environmental stewardship.

A solar or wind power system can generate income for your school!

The energy sector is in the middle of a power revolution and new disruptive technology (one with the power to disrupt existing business models and render them obsolete) is set to change everything.

Within 5 years it is predicted that over 1 million Australian homes will have usable stored power derived from renewable sources. A combination of solar panels with storage batteries (solar cells, combined with lithium ion phosphate battery) will become cheaper than the standard residential tariff for electricity supplied from the grid.

Any excess power being generated is first used to charge the batteries at the home or business with any remaining excess feeding back into the electricity grid.

The ABC\’s Catalyst episode on Battery powered homes gives an excellent overview about this disruptive technology – a technology that offers every home the potential for 24-hour renewable power.

What if schools could be included in this power revolution and have solar panels with storage batteries? During the day schools could use the power derived from the sun and when usage and daylight do not coincide, use the power stored in onsite batteries. Any excess electricity can be sold to the electricity retailer and fed back into the grid.

Schools have the potential to export substantial power back into the grid during weekends and school holidays creating a regular source of income from the electricity provider.

In 2014 Mazenod College, a secondary school with an enrolment of 1300 students, saw the installation of 1076 solar panels across 8 of the 10 main school buildings. With a 270kW PV array, this was Australia\’s largest rooftop solar system for a school, supplying around half the energy needs with excess electricity generated being sent back to the grid.

“Mazenod College has made an investment in solar power because we have a responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint for the benefit of future generations,” said Fr Michael Twigg, Principal of Mazenod College.

You can see more about Mazenod College\’s solar installation here.

Coburg Senior High School decided to spend the Department of Education Energy Efficiency Grant of $10,000 on a wind turbine. In partnership with Australian Wind and Solar who met the grant dollar-for-dollar, the school purchased a 1.5 kW wind and solar turbine, while Adant Electric generously supplied free labor and installation. In optimal conditions, the wind turbine is able to generate 24kWh of electricity per day, which helps offset their data projector consumption, the main learning interfaces used within the classrooms. The 12 projectors running over 5 hours per day across 190 active school days per year require 4,560 kWh.

Want to know more?

If you need assistance on understanding renewable energy we have created a guide Renewable Energy at your School to encourage all of our schools to consider potential solar and/or wind installations.

The Victorian Government is interested in understanding how schools are capturing renewable energy data from their solar and/or wind systems and making an impact for our global future. CERES have developed a Renewable Energy survey to help us gauge which of our schools are/are not generating renewable energy, and help us identify which areas schools need most assistance. And thanks to the support from Planet Savers, we\’ve created a tips and tricks guide to understanding renewable energy at your school.

Let\’s hope schools can be part of this power revolution and help shape the future!

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