Could solar energy be right for your school?

Brookside Academy in Street, Somerset, is now making £4,000 a year in savings thanks to a trailblazing partnership with its local energy co-operative. Business manager, Sandra Cinicola, explains how and why they got involved

Our primary school is the largest in Somerset, and was extended in 2009, but we’d never thought about solar energy as part of the mix; we’d only thought about our energy savings in terms of having a more efficient building and left it at that.
With the arrival of our new headteacher in 2014, and a chance conversation he had with a former colleague who was now chair of our local energy co-operative, Avalon Community Energy (ACE), we began to think that solar could work at Brookside. At this time no other schools in Somerset had retrofitted solar panels so we began our journey with very little knowledge or expertise. However, we felt committed to show our local community, which make a lot of use of our buildings for clubs and events, that we wanted to take visible and practical measures to reduce our carbon footprint.
ACE presented a scheme that could work for our school with no initial outlay required by us. Local shareholders – known as ‘social investors’ – and members fund these community energy schemes, and any profits are transferred into a community benefit fund for projects such as local fuel-poverty reduction. Our school really bought into the idea that all the money behind the scheme would stay in the community, potentially benefiting local families. We were also very motivated by the ability to generate our own electricity, selling any excess back to the grid, and being more vigilant about our usage through the online tools that came with the package.
A low-risk enterprise?
As we had a brand new roof we felt that adding 144 panels, new cabling and a new meter was a low-risk enterprise – however, we were very much a testbed for making our lease work for the co-operative. We had a 125 year lease with Somerset County Council and changing it to accommodate the installation and access for the life of the panels took 14 months of pro bono work for our solicitors. As we are an independent academy they had to negotiate with the council, the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the Department for Education. Ours was the first school for ACE; they were very committed to making it work and were instrumental in moving everyone along to get us through the period of sorting out the red tape.
The period of installation took place across a couple of weeks with little impact on school life. We had some teething issues with getting the meter readings taken automatically but, again, ACE were able to step in and sort this with our suppliers and the National Grid. Last year we used 71% of the energy that we generated which the school pays ACE for at a discounted price; the rest is exported to the National Grid. Importantly, during the same period, the panels saved more than 40 tonnes of carbon emissions, the equivalent of driving a car from Glastonbury to Minsk!
Two years into having solar panels on two of our roofs we’re still considered to be a testbed project in the local area – but, slowly, other schools are showing interest in setting a similar example. One benefit that we’ve not yet taken full advantage of is using some of the online tools available to help us (including students as part of a class project) look at the detail of when our energy usage is highest and how we might use less electricity generally. There is little impact on our workload now that the scheme is up-and-running, saving us money and showing our local families and businesses that one of their large community buildings is serious about reducing carbon emissions.

What are community energy co-operatives?
Community energy co-operatives work with local residents, and sometimes with a commercial or public sector partner, to deliver renewable energy or energy saving projects.  These might be heat storage systems, wind, solar or hydro energy generation or energy-efficiency projects.
There are now 275 community energy organisations across England, Wales and Northern Ireland working with groups such as schools and local residents to help reduce carbon emissions and give them a stake in local planning and decision-making.  Co-operatives provide local ethical investment opportunities to meet environmental and social needs.
Find your nearest community energy project at:
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