Johnnie Kerr

It is easy being green

<em>Johnnie Kerr</em> on how one school’s efforts to overhaul its ancient heating system will end up saving both energy and money

It is easy being green
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The problem with going green, I’m told, is that it often means spending a great deal of money on lots of equipment that could at any moment be rendered obsolete. When it comes to renewable energy, scepticism abounds. But the outcome of this cynicism is that our efforts to be greener have been incremental at best, and symbolic at worst. Just before I left school seven years ago we were told that all bedrooms were to be fitted with low-energy light bulbs. The school would reduce its carbon footprint a trifle, while also saving a bit of money (or vice versa). I remember thinking at the time that this was less an initiative than a gesture — a head-fake towards social responsibility to soothe their conscience.

The fact remains, though, that going green, really green, is still a pressing obligation that institutions can ill-afford to ignore.

What can be said, then, of a small boarding school attempting, at one stroke, to reduce its annual carbon emissions by nearly 70 per cent, and all without spending a penny? I speak of St Mary’s Shaftes-bury, a Catholic girls’ school in 55 acres of Wiltshire which this summer set in motion the most thorough green initiative ever attempted by an independent British school.

Its transformation will be extreme, to say the least. The main building and estate of St Mary’s date back to the 1880s, and since that time very few of its energy facilities have undergone what you might call ‘diligent modernisation’. Off the grid for gas, the school has had to rely instead on oil and LPG (liquid petroleum gas) for decades. Many of its boilers were installed in the 1960s.

All this is about to change. When the girls of St Mary’s return for the Christmas term, they’ll find themselves in one of the greenest schools in the country, its roofs replete with solar panelling and its buildings heated by a vast biomass boiler.

The solution of switching to alternative fuel to save on costs originated, naturally enough, with the school’s bursar, Louis Tuson, who, on his arrival three years ago was faced with a decision of what to do about the school’s alarmingly antiquated energy set-up. ‘There were 19 boilers on site, some of them over 40 years old,’ he explains, ‘all of various ages and requiring quite a lot of maintenance, with the replacements’ significant capital cost always on the horizon.’ To the man charged with making all this cost-efficient, it must have seemed an almost insoluble problem.

Small wonder, then, that the solution Tuson hit upon was so far-reaching. ‘Looking at the place with a fresh pair of eyes,’ he recalls, ‘carrying on as we were — we would have had to spend a lot of money buying new oil-fired boilers — you had to ask, is that logical in the current climate? And it seemed to me that we ought to be doing something radically different.’ He had no idea at the time just how radical this overhaul would become, or how easily he would hit on the answer. Almost immediately, as he began looking into the murky, often maligned world of biomass boilers, he was put in touch with a company which promised to exceed his requirements extravagantly, and all at no cost whatsoever.

Anesco, whose website proclaims to be ‘the UK’s leading energy efficiency services company’, is not a charitable group. Its profits are recouped from the savings it provides its clients. It offers a model which, as the company’s founder Adrian Pike explains, ‘enables organisations to reduce their energy expenditure while improving the efficiency of their buildings… without the need for capital outlay. It’s perfect for schools like St Mary’s which have high energy demands across multiple buildings.’ What’s more, the scheme had been well proven. ‘We have helped many schools to improve their energy efficiency,’ Pike tells me. St Mary’s, though, is the first independent school to submit to this model, and the ‘tailored upgrades’ currently being installed, entirely at the cost of Anesco’s investors, are impressive.

They include a gigantic 995kW biomass boiler (the largest to be installed in the country this year) that will reduce the school’s gas and oil costs by up to 70 per cent. Solar PV panelling is being laid extensively over the school’s rooftops, as well as an unused field in the grounds, and the lights will be switched to LED lamps, all of which will provide 20 per cent of the school’s future electricity requirements.

Even considering the outmoded conditions St Mary’s is emerging from, the projected figures are staggering. The school expects to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions of 69 per cent (a reduction of 847 tonnes) annually, which should cut its energy bill by up to 55 per cent in the first year. ‘[Anesco] say the levels of CO2 reductions are the best they’ve achieved, and they’ve done a lot of this,’ says Tuson, ‘and I know they’re quite keen now to expand further and do it elsewhere.’ In fact, the school is hosting an Industry Day on 31 October where Anesco intend to show off their achievements to investors and potential customers.

But in exhibiting its newfound efficiency, St Mary’s is keen to promote more than just the economic benefits of its upheaval. The expectation is that its success will serve as an example of what can be achieved. Nor are its measures purely practical. Their most enduring consequence, it’s hoped, will be to illustrate the extraordinary possibilities of green energy both to the local community and, crucially, to its pupils.

‘That’s equally important,’ says Tuson. ‘It’s about trying to encourage behavioural changes, as well as just trying to solve the issue with technology. It’s working already. Since we’ve started this and started talking about it, a number of girls have come out of the woodwork and said, “We’re interested in this, it’s the world we’re going to grow up in.” It’s very relevant.’

Green fever at St Mary’s is quickly becoming a major feature of school life. Awareness of the initiative has already been stepped up in science and geography lessons. ‘Smart metering’ screens are being installed to illustrate to the girls exactly how energy is distributed, encouraging the boarding houses to compete to be the most efficient. A radical recycling initiative was introduced last term, with the enviable appointment of ‘Waste Monitors’ in every house, which has already brought the total waste recycled by the school to an estimated 95 per cent.

If all this seems too good to be true, I must admit that as my interview with Tuson drew to a close, I couldn’t help being a little doubtful. Surely there must be some sort of flipside? ‘Not at all,’ he tells me, with insouciance. ‘There are some practical risks. The truck that delivers the woodchip is particularly large. We’re not used to that size of truck coming onto the estate and we’ll have to trim some trees to make it possible, but that’s all pretty trivial really. Nothing that can’t be managed.’

And there, I suppose, you have it. Astonishing as it may seem, St Mary’s Shaftesbury has solved in three years an energy problem that has dogged it for decades. If all goes as expected, in 19 years the savings the school will have made with its new equipment will have rewarded the investors of Anesco for installing and maintaining that equipment; and, if there’s any justice, St Mary’s will have been hailed as a pioneer of green ingenuity. The most impressive thing about the school’s strategy, however, is not the extent of its accomplishments, but the courageous vision of its governors in undertaking it in the first place. It can’t have been an easy decision, but its effect has been extraordinary. Their school appears to have leapt from the 19th to the 21st century in one mighty bound.