How schools and colleges are joining the solar revolution

Peter Turley, Business Unit Manager, Kingspan Energy. Years of successive budget cuts have drastically reduced funding reserves for schools, colleges and local authorities, causing non-essential work to be postponed indefinitely. Measures to improve energy efficiency have traditionally fallen into this camp, as they are not seen as a priority in such straitened times.

With that in mind, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the installation of rooftop solar PV panels on school roofs would have been equally affected, but this has not been the case. A mixture of strong support for solar from all stakeholders, a compelling financial case, and new funding models, has made rooftop solar PV a popular and increasingly common choice for schools across the country. Kingspan Energy’s Peter Turley explains how.

Rooftop solar PV is a popular technology across the board. The Government is keen to drive widespread adoption of rooftop solar PV in all sectors, and sees education as a particularly important beneficiary of the technology. To this end, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has been working closely with the Department for Education and certain industry partners to discuss the best ways to unlock the solar opportunity for schools.

Solar also enjoys widespread support among the general public. Unlike some other forms of renewable energy, DECC’s Public Attitudes Tracker puts solar in all its forms as the most popular form of renewable energy, at 82% approval rate. This is partly because of the relatively unobtrusive nature of rooftop solar PV systems when compared with other renewables; an attribute that has largely protected solar from some of the public perception issues associated with wind or wave technology. But it is also because the idea of harnessing energy directly from the sun captures the imagination in ways that other technology just can’t, especially when you explain that solar panels can still work even under the UK’s typically cloudy skies.

This final point is a key reason why solar power is so attractive to schools, purely in terms of principles. Rooftop solar PV offers a tangible working example of sustainability technology in action. Harness pupil enthusiasm correctly, and a rooftop array can become a powerful tool to foster discussions and learning around geography, science and design, not to mention broader debate around the generation and use of energy.

The appetite is clear, and the long-term financial case (in terms of reducing operational costs) also stacks up for schools. Energy prices have been rising at an alarming rate for a number of years now, with a Cumulative Annual Growth Rate between 2004 and 2014 of over 10%. These price rises, combined with predictions of more of the same over the next 30 years, have pushed energy prices to the top of the public sector agenda, particularly as expenditure on electricity is perhaps one of the last remaining costs that can be easily cut without affecting delivery of vital services. Any technology that can reduce the burden of grid-based bills without requiring wholesale organisational change is a no-brainer.

Rooftop solar PV makes financial sense then, and enjoys broad public support. So why hasn’t every school installed solar panels yet? The simple answer is capital cost. While the cost of solar PV panels has been driven down dramatically over the past decade (down by 80% since 2002), a significant capital outlay is still required to design, install and maintain a system, especially where the existing roof needs work to ensure it can support the load. This is capital that the vast majority of schools, colleges and local authorities simply do not believe they have access to. However, there are innovative new funding models that can be used to overcome this final barrier to enjoying the benefits of solar generation.

Traditionally, schools would be expected to fund the development of their rooftop PV arrays either from capital reserves or via fundraising initiatives. Naturally, in the current financial climate, this method is becoming increasingly rare. Some schools have turned to funding packages from finance suppliers that meet local authority and EFA requirements. While this can provide the capital required to unlock to benefits of lower electricity bills, it does expose the school to the full risks and variables associated with the installation and maintenance of its own system. If it does not generate as much electricity as expected, the school may still be on the hook for the entire capital cost. This makes this funding method an imperfect and impractical option for many.

Another funding model is relatively new on the scene, but has already been taken up by a number of schools and colleges across the country. In this model, the installer covers the entire capital cost of deployment and maintenance of the system for a fixed period, with the school agreeing to purchase the electricity generated by the system from the installer. This is the solution that Kingspan Energy offers.

Our 100% funded solution means that schools can benefit from the reduced operational costs, increased energy security and improved environmental credentials associated with solar PV-generated electricity. More importantly, they can do so without any capital investment and at no risk. In return for a long-term lease on the roof space, Kingspan Energy designs, installs and maintains a bespoke solar PV solution. The electricity generated by the system is sold to the school or college at significantly lower rates than would otherwise be supplied from the grid. Moreover, all future prices are index-linked to the retail price index (RPI), rather than subject to volatile energy market fluctuations.

In other words, schools and colleges can benefit from an immediate reduction in their electricity bills, with the reduction likely to grow over time, without having to make any capital investment or take on any risk.

Most schools should be able to benefit from this solution, as it is suitable for the majority of common roof types. While new school and college buildings will always form the backbone of education rooftop solar PV installations, a significant number of existing buildings have had panels retrofitted to their roofs. Even if the roof is life-expired and unable to support the system, Kingspan Energy can help – providing a complete energy-efficient roof refurbishment, which can even be built in to the fully-funded package.

With innovative funding models like ours, firm direction from the Government, and a growing appetite from schools, the amount of generation capacity installed in the UK’s education sector is set to boom over the next few years. This will result in lower bills, inspired pupils, and school buildings that contribute to the greener world that the next generation deserves.

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