Some like it hot?

Are schools really on top of energy use? The primary school that my daughter attends is, like many in Edinburgh, over 100 years old. It is a splendid building in lots of ways with light and airy classrooms and common space and that sense of confidence of the era in which it was built. Its solidity alone speaks volumes about the central role that education has played in Scottish life since the sixteenth century.

But it is a challenge to heat. This winter, consistently low temperatures, coupled with rising fuel costs have put real pressure on energy budgets, for schools just as much as individual families. Schools, across the city, are already wrestling with cuts so rising costs are never welcome. 

We cannot do much about the weather or, at least in Edinburgh, about international fuel prices. But we can get an awful lot smarter at how we use and produce energy in schools. This would save money and make real strides towards genuine eco-schools. 

So why, oh why, do I hear stories, from across Edinburgh, of teachers having to open windows even on the coldest days to reduce temperatures, while in other rooms children are donning jackets? Why do we see children spilling out of schools red-faced and dehydrated even as school business managers wonder how to pay the next fuel bill? 

There’s lots of fine talk on improving the energy efficiency of schools but action seems lagging behind words. In one school parents and staff told me of the frustration they have in trying to keep rooms at an even temperature while the most recent so-called school condition survey failed even to register temperature control as a concern. 

And then there’s missed opportunities. Schools are ideally placed to lead on the renewables revolution. Excellent initiatives like Piper in south west Edinburgh have shown what can be done, with, for example, Currie High School sporting an award-winning wind turbine.  Using the new feed-in tariffs, schools can install renewable energy capacity, like turbines or photovoltaic panels.  Within a few years the capital cost is recouped through energy generated for school use and surplus energy sold into the grid. 

So I think four things need to happen. 

First, the basics of energy management need to be sorted. The days of centralised energy management are gone. Teachers and other staff need to be able to control the temperature of their rooms though localised thermostats. 

Secondly, there is scope to reduce average temperatures. I am told that the standard temperature in schools is 20 degrees. That is warm for active children and young people. Reducing standard temperatures to 19 or even 18 degrees would save hundreds of thousands of pounds a year across all schools. That saving could instead be used to support capital investment. 

Thirdly, we need to get serious about energy efficiency. Too many schools still have ill-fitting windows and inadequate insulation. Money spent today is money saved tomorrow. 

Fourthly, and finally, schools are ideally positioned to pioneer small scale renewable energy. That so few newly-built schools took advantage of this under the PPP regime is damning but the introduction of feed-in tariffs offers a new opportunity for existing schools. 

For these reasons I am asking the City Council at its next meeting to back my call for an Energy Improvement Plan to be developed for the entire school estate. It makes sense in so many ways.

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About the Author

Alison is a Green MSP for Lothian. In what spare time she gets she's a keen runner.