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). https://www.solarforschools.co.uk/



‘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)


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