Rethink your energy strategy

It’s not easy to decarbonise your school when funding is limited. But developing an energy strategy is an important step towards cutting waste, freeing up cash and allowing you to explore further options

By 2050, schools are expected to become net zero carbon consumers. As part of this, they have been advised to develop an energy management strategy which will deliver cost and carbon savings. Academies have been set specific targets of reducing consumption by 15% and emissions by 40% by 2030.

Yet many schools still don’t know exactly when, where and how they are consuming energy, meaning that valuable resources and money are being wasted. Clearly this impacts on bills, particularly when energy prices are so volatile. Indeed, energy costs are often the second highest annual expenditure for schools after wages.

The good news is that it’s possible to make savings of upwards of 20% through carbon reduction and energy efficiency measures. While older buildings may be more difficult to retro-fit, even the simplest measures can make a difference. From draft-proofing windows to improvements in your energy infrastructure, there are options to suit all budgets and schools.


FundEd has collaborated with school funding consultant Tim Warneford to guide you through the process of how to plan an energy strategy, Solar for Schools director Ann Flaherty takes a look at what makes a zero-carbon building, and TG Escapes Eco-Buildings consultant Mark Brown explores the funding options for solar power and profile successful school case studies.


A guide to developing an energy strategy

It needn’t be a daunting task, and the benefits – environmental and financial – are more than worth it, says Tim Warneford

Current costs and consumption

Your first step should be to understand how much energy your school is using, and identify when and where this usage occurs. You can collect data by attaching ‘loggers’ to distribution boards, and by installing smart meters. This will allow you to profile consumption patterns, as well as identifying any unnecessary peaks or times that trigger a higher rate. Do this both in and out of term time to compare data.

Once you have the data, you can assess the effectiveness of your current installations. The age and condition of your school buildings could have a significant impact, but even new systems may be operating inefficiently if they are set to factory settings that no one knows how to change. We’ve even come across situations where kitchen systems turn themselves on on Sundays!

Take a careful look at the terms and conditions of your existing energy contracts. It’s all too common for schools not to know whether their gas and electricity contract is fixed or flexible, or what the half-hourly rates are. Schools in the local authority framework are often seen as soft targets by energy suppliers, and SBMs with no background in energy procurement can be exploited in what is largely an unregulated sector of the market. Some may even discover they have no access to their energy contract, having negotiated with a broker.

To determine whether your current rates are competitive, test the market and see what a range of suppliers can offer your school. Look for hidden clauses (where suppliers will put you on the highest rate when the contract ends). If you have a renewable energy installation, then watch out for ‘volume tolerance’ clauses, which require schools to use a percentage of their calculated energy consumption or pay a penalty. A consultancy can renegotiate your contract to ensure you are on a standard tariff and that any restrictions on leaving are removed.

Involve and engage

It’s crucial to embed new values of energy conservation and efficiency among staff and pupils. So, gather ideas from across the school community, provide targets and assign leaders to help drive your strategy forward. Consider running culture change seminars and interactive pupil workshops.


Having identified areas of waste and inefficiency, you can now address them to make your existing energy infrastructure more effective. What changes can you make to give you quick, low-cost wins? This might be as straightforward as installing thermostats and communicating the importance of turning off all switches when not in use.

Prioritise and implement

It’s important to assess which options will provide the best fit for your building and circumstances. Every school is different: some might start by installing simple low-carbon technologies such as LED lighting, whereas for others it can make more sense to develop a comprehensive plan for renewable installations and clean energy tariffs.

Schools received little of the government funding for decarbonising public buildings in the first round of the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS), which replaced the Salix energy fund. This may have been because the PSDS focus appeared to be on initiatives such as air and ground source heat pump systems, which are difficult to retro fit.

With applications for the second PSDS round now closed, many schools are considering the growing range of funding alternatives offered by private renewable installers. CIF funding is also available for the large MATs.

Always focus on what will reap the most reward for the smallest investment. The average-sized primary school, for instance, could save £4,000 to £6,000 a year simply by switching to LED lighting, with a large secondary school saving as much as £3,000 a month. Funding options from installers mean it’s possible to avoid upfront costs and instead pay a fixed service fee for the length of the contract.

Installing solar PV panels can shave a quarter to a third off a school’s electricity bill, especially with an LED lighting installation, leading to savings of more than £125,000 for a typical primary school over the life of the system. Many schools avoid the upfront costs of planning and installation by renting their roofs to suppliers, and are able to generate income by selling electricity back to the grid.

Installing charging points for electric vehicles supports broader carbon reduction targets and can help your school generate income.


Make sure you can gauge the success of the initiatives you are implementing by recording the Return on Investment (ROI) and levels of carbon reduction. This will inform your future planning and target setting. Do continue to communicate what is being achieved to your school community as it encourages engagement and buy-in on multiple levels.

  • Tim Warneford is a school funding consultant, working in conjunction with the Lloyds Bank education team to create bespoke energy strategies for academy trusts. He has facilitated CIF bids that include survey, installation, design, maintenance and training.


Rules for large academies

The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) requires large academy trusts to report their carbon emissions and provide evidence of year-on-year reductions. Known as Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR), this data must be included in the annual accounts return for trusts of more than two secondary or five primary schools, and those with assets of more than £18m.


Going Solar

Installing solar panels doesn’t have to cost the earth, says Ann Flaherty

Cutting your carbon footprint by installing solar panels is the keystone to achieving net zero and educating by example.

When we talk about solar power, we automatically think about owning solar panels. Owning anything comes at a cost and, given that most schools have no capital, the idea of having solar power is often left for another day.

But it doesn’t have to be. A school does not have to own solar panels to have solar power – it can just buy solar power. After all, the school buys mains electricity, so why not solar-generated electricity?

Buying green electricity from mains suppliers is expensive, as the tariffs charged are higher than standard rates. However, there is another solution. A school can buy solar power generated on site from panels it does not own or have any responsibility for managing. Indeed, many hundreds of schools have opted for this route. These schools enter a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the owner of the panels. The agreement gives the school the right to solar electricity at the same, or slightly lower, rate as its mains supplier. The school has no increased costs and it benefits from the zero-carbon electricity source.

So why haven’t all schools embraced this idea? The issue is that power purchase options come with long-term contracts. Given the experiences of PFI, there is a perception that a long-term energy deal might prevent the school from taking advantage of other opportunities. But that depends on the terms and conditions of the solar power contract. If the provider’s interests are aligned with those of the school, a power purchase agreement can be a good option.

The advantage is that the school has no initial capital cost and no long-term cost. Funding is raised and managed by the asset owner, which may be a commercial company or a not-for-profit community energy group. Community groups can offer schools long-term governance, as well as 100% of any profit. They crowdfund from private individuals who want to do something positive with their money. These private funders will see their investments repaid through the school buying solar power.

If a school has capital or access to a grant, then owning an on-site system could bring greater financial rewards. However, it’s essential to factor in the costs (time and effort) of managing the system, including any repairs needed out of warranty, plus insurance and business rates. Monitoring and maintenance contracts will also be needed to keep the systems running.

Grants are great but they are currently difficult to come by and may only cover part of the cost. It takes time to apply, and success is far from guaranteed. Many school-funded systems fail to deliver a return on investment because the costs of running, maintaining and repairing the system have not been factored in – so if they break, they can lie idle for years. Some schools with grant or capital-funded solar projects have now opted for a low-cost power purchase price so that responsibility is taken on by another party. This ensures the solar system will continue to deliver a sustainable legacy.

Learning from buildings

Pupils can learn from their buildings, not just in them, with solar panel installations offering practical educational opportunities. The Solar for Schools app supports cross-curricular learning on sustainability for Year 6 primary children. The app also links to the Solar for Schools website, where individual schools can estimate the carbon saving potential of their site simply by inputting their name and postcode.

  • Ann Flaherty is director of Solar for Schools (a trading name for the community benefit society Solar for Schools CBS Ltd and the social impact company Solar Options for Schools Ltd).


How to get a net zero building

Whether you’re in the exciting position of creating a new building, or adapting an existing one, there are plenty of ways to make it greener, says Mark Brown

Working towards net zero involves both reducing the amount of energy used in a building’s construction and in its day-to-day operation (through heating and cooling systems, cooking, lighting and plug loads).

In 2020, the Government issued the following guidelines:

Building construction:

  •  Natural, sustainable materials should be prioritised
  •  Efforts should be made to use fewer materials generally
  •  Transportation to the build site should be reduced by utilising off-site construction
  •  Waste and site works should be minimised.

Operational energy:

  •  Glazing should have high U values and, where possible, a low surface area, balancing the need for natural daylight and thermal comfort. All windows should be openable to allow cross ventilation
  •  All systems for heating, cooling, pumping and fans should include demand controls
  •  Fossil-fuelled heating and hot water systems must be avoided and renewable energy sources maximised.


A net zero classroom block at Samuel Ryder Academy, St Albans

Since the small (250-pupil) Samuel Ryder secondary school expanded to become an all-through school for pupils aged 4 to 19, demand for places has outstripped capacity. As a result, the local authority provided further funding to extend the school’s provision. Using sustainable materials, contractor TG Escapes completed a new block in 2020, consisting of seven English classrooms, English and SLT offices, Year 7 and 8 toilets, a media suite and two Year 6 classrooms. Price was one of the key criteria, but certainly not the only one, says deputy headteacher Ian Bailey.

‘Energy efficiency was considered very important, given the passion of many pupils for environmental issues. Rightly so – it’s this world that they are going to inherit.

‘The students and staff find their time in the building wonderful. We are also looking forward to the children being able to track and talk to the trees that were gifted to the school as part of TG Escapes’ tree-planting initiative.’

With an A+ energy performance certificate, the new block is carbon neutral (net zero) in operation. M&E consultants Designphase achieved this in four ways:

Active Ventilation: A quiet and energy-efficient Passivent system draws in and circulates fresh air and removes stale polluted air.

Lighting: A combination of high-efficiency LED lighting was selected for different spaces across the building. Sensors and programmable controls minimise energy use. Daylight dimming means lights dim automatically on days with plenty of natural light.

Solar Energy: A large 72kW solar photovoltaic system was installed on the roof by Solar for Schools. It should generate around 65,000kWh of clean electricity a year, stopping 25 tonnes of CO2 being produced. During its lifetime, the installation should stop 560 tonnes of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere, and also cut the school’s electricity bills as they’ll buy less from the grid.

Air Source Heat Pumps: These produce between 3-4 kilowatts of heat for every kilowatt of electricity used. The system tempers the incoming air with the extracted hot air using low wattage fans to create a comfortable environment. The system also moves energy to where it’s needed in the building, reducing electricity input by up to 30%. It also heats water.

  • Mark Brown is a consultant for TG Escapes Eco-Buildings, which aims to create buildings which are affordable, energy efficient and enhance the well-being of their occupants.



‘I’d been committed to sustainability since attending a World Wildlife Fund conference in 2001 and being shocked to discover that the UK was using three planets’ worth of resources (which we can only sustain because developing countries have so little). So when we decided to build a nursery on site, I wanted to make sure it had a low carbon footprint.  Prior to this, our children would be admitted from up to 30 different nurseries, which made it difficult for them to settle quickly. Now the nursery and reception are in the same building, so the children are more confident about going to “big school”.

Our parish church sold some land to finance the build, and I found architects who researched the most sustainable building materials and methods of construction. The block is heated by a ground source heat pump, with the heat pumped from under the school field through what we call big “slinkies”. This provides underfloor heating and the only thing we pay for is the pump. 

The building panels are made from crushed glass, and we’ve used wood from sustainable forests, recycled door mats and carpets, recycled insulation and lots of glass. Instead of sending the spoil from the shallow foundations to landfill, it has become one of the play areas.

We got some grants to have solar panels installed. Any unused electricity is sold back to the electricity company.  We also have sun pipes in some classrooms (which increase light through reflectors) and LED lighting. We’ve won the Green Flag Award seven years running and we have a green headteacher award from the WWF.’

Patricia Opalko, former co-headteacher, St Edmund Campion Catholic Primary School, Maidenhead (420 pupils)



‘We conducted an energy audit last year and have changed our lighting to LED, installed double glazing and updated our boiler. These are three main areas we are now able to control. We also have zoned thermostats, which can trigger certain parts of the school system to come on as needed, for example for an after-school club. We were able to fund some of this work through grants.

We’ve introduced a ‘switch off light’ campaign. School councillors have a duty during break, lunch and teachers’ PPA time to make sure that lights and whiteboards are off. Our children are taught about the environment and sustainability from many angles. For instance, our local egg farmer has solar panels on their fields and they come and speak to the children, We have the Level 3 (top level) Solihull Greener Schools Award and a Silver Green Flag Award.’

Howard Rose, lead for sponsorship and publicity, Balsall Common Primary School, Solihull (710 pupils)



‘We are an eco-friendly school with a commitment to efficient energy use, promoting sustainable transport and the preservation of wildlife. We have achieved Gold School Travel Plan status, and have a sustainable curriculum. We made a bug hotel for our playground and have reduced plastic use with a ‘no plastic, you’re fantastic’ lunchtime incentive. We also recycle batteries and school uniform, and organise bike-ability and scooter safety workshops.

In 2020, Lewisham Council provided funding for RAFT (Retrofit Action for Tomorrow) to deliver a programme of education and a zero carbon retrofit action plan for our school. RAFT is a local not-for-profit project and its founder, Harry Paticas, led the school through the options of how to make changes.

Harry developed an impressive proposal for the school buildings to become zero carbon in four years and across all areas by 2030. The plan included the creation of green areas and roof gardens, twice as many solar panels, the removal of our boiler and retrofitting the building. Now we need to find the £3.5m of funding! If the government wants society to be zero carbon, it has to do something about it. This is about the future of our planet. There are possibilities to put things right and we all have a part to play. As a faith school, we also have a duty of stewardship to protect our beautiful world.’

Margaret Hanrahan, former headteacher, St Winifred’s Roman Catholic Primary School, Lewisham (421 pupils)


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