Wind energy helps youngsters learn about environment


Environmental studies have come a long way since students first learned about recycling and picking up litter. These days, thousands of youngsters are being given a window on sustainability thanks to facilities like Staffordshire’s Apedale Energy Centre.

Set in Apedale Community Country Park – a former open cast coal site – the £850,000 centre offers what, for local children from deprived backgrounds, “may be the only opportunity to see green in action”, according to Ian Wykes, Head of Sustainability for Staffordshire County Council. “It’s the only piece of public open space for miles around.”  .

The brand-new energy centre, “a showcase of renewable technology and low carbon building techniques”, was created with natural materials like hemp and wood and is powered by solar panels, thermal heating and two 5 kW wind turbines. Visitors can see how the building is functioning and how much energy it is exporting. Wykes hopes it will encourage both domestic users and schools to take advantage of the government’s Feed in Tariff scheme.(FiTs)

The scheme, launched on 1 April 2010, means that licensed electricity suppliers pay a tariff to small-scale, low-carbon energy producers for the electricity they generate, as well as an export tariff when that energy is exported to the national grid.

Staffordshire County Council is deeply involved with the eco-schools programme, and has prepared learning resources for schools highlighting “the implications of leaving a whiteboard on or leaving lights on.” Wykes believes that wind energy is ideal for schools with suitable sites, and has already been in discussion with local head teachers about the value of renewables.

“In any school, energy use is always the second biggest cost after staff, and given that the budgets are all very squeezed, and you can see we’re looking down the barrel of fairly substantial rises in energy prices, it’s an area that’s going to become more and more on headteachers’ radar,” he says. 

At Denes High School in Lowestoft, Suffolk, wind energy is more than on the radar – it’s been helping to power the site for a year. As part of a progamme to be fully sustainable by 2015, the school installed a 5 kW turbine in the summer of 2010. Students were intimately involved in the project, with sixth formers driving both planning and funding applications.

“They really did take it to heart,” says Denes Operations Manager Justin Smith. “Because it’s such a long project, we had to get planning permission, we had to do a bat survey and one or two other things, as well – it’s very easy to lose heart with these things, so they needed a little bit of refocusing from time to time but they were really, really fantastic.”

Much of Denes’s 800-strong student base also comes from an underprivileged background. “Lowestoft has got a number of challenges,” says Smith. “It’s a seaside town. The fishing industry, of course, has pretty much died away, so it’s economically deprived: a number of our students come from challenging backgrounds and homes.”

All the more reason to get them involved in a project in which they could really take pride. “There’s no way some of these students would ever consider a project like this,” says Smith. “They just wouldn’t have it in their thoughts. So to say, ‘actually, you can play a part, even if it’s just helping come up with the name of it, or collecting some of the data and understanding what it means, you can be part of this project’, that’s really important for us.”

Named ‘Centurion’, to represent both strength and the school’s 100-year history, the turbine sits in the school field and is a “visible, visual landmark,” says Smith. Its output represents 3-5% of the school’s electricity cost. “The point was to show that actually students can achieve something that most schools don’t have and it’s there to stay as a legacy” he explains.

Funding for the £37,000 project came from the Low Carbon Building Fund and from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Data from the turbine is already used in maths classes and will be used in other subjects in September, when the school becomes an academy.

Smith, who is now looking into installing solar panels at the school, believes renewable energy is a growing trend amongst educational institutions. Two or three schools have already asked if they can draw on Denes’s experiences. “It all snowballs a little bit, because we’re commenting on our experiences and other schools are thinking, ‘well, actually, it may be worth following through.

“I think going forwards, schools have to become more sustainable institutions. In the past, they’ve been large buildings. Some of them are quite old and inefficient in terms of energy, but sustainability is more than just energy efficiency, it’s about caring for each other as well as for the environment, and that goes to the heart of what a school is all about, as well.”

That’s a view shared by Gill Harper, Business Manager at St. Columb Minor Academy near Newquay. The primary school has its own sustainability action plan, and installed a 6 kW wind turbine in December 2008. Its solar programme is ongoing, and students are treated to yearly workshops on climate change and renewable technology.

“It’s having that visible opportunity to actually see it working,” says Harper. “It brings home technology, really, and gives children a better understanding.”

Already, St. Columb students have been involved in making presentations about their school’s renewable resources to the community and to other schools all over Cornwall. “It’s all part of the expanded local sustainability programme in schools, looking at renewable technologies, turning off lights, recycling, and so on,” says Harper

She hopes that eventually, meter readings can be uploaded to school computers so that students can have access to what the wind and solar units are generating and what the school is using them for in maths, science and environmental studies.

St. Columb received funding for its turbine from EDF Energy and from the Low Carbon Buildings Programme. Because it was installed before the FITs scheme, and any returns won’t be backdated, it will only earn the school 9 p per kilowatt hour exported. Still, says Harper, “We’re pleased – it’s been really efficient. We’ve saved 10 times the CO2 and it’s 6% of the school’s energy costs.”

The school already has 400 pupils and is always expanding, so in terms of cost savings achieved by the renewables, “it’s just balancing out,” says Harper. “But at least we’re making a contribution.”

For staff and students alike, that’s the most important thing.

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