Energy costs

Energy costs: Decarbonisation is now an achievable priority

Balancing short-term budget pressures with long-term investment in energy efficiencies and decarbonisation is complex but possible, writes Steven Reynolds

Balancing short-term budget pressures with long-term investment in energy efficiencies and decarbonisation is complex but possible, writes Steven Reynolds

19 Nov 2022, 5:00

After this summer’s record-breaking temperatures, the nation is willing this winter’s weather to be kinder to us so that we can keep thermostats down and keep soaring energy bills in check. The six-month guarantee of a ‘government-supported price’ that kicked in October is a much-needed short-term measure that, it is claimed, could save schools up to 40 per cent on their energy bills over that period.

But the support is insufficient; ahead of this week’s autumn statement, secondary school heads are still warning MPs of the pressure rising costs are putting on their already squeezed budgets. And the short-termism is also an issue: schools and trusts lack the certainty they need to make decisions in the face of an ongoing energy crisis.

Government firefighting is leading schools to take the same attitude to the problem. Yet tackling energy efficiency within a school estate, thereby releasing money to be spent elsewhere, requires a longer-term horizon. This is a debate we often have with our academy trust and school clients. We appreciate that thinking strategically and investing in the estate when there are so many pressing short-term budget issues is a tough call, but this is a decision that needs to be made sooner rather than later.

Shifting from reactive to planned maintenance

It is difficult for a school to look beyond works that need to be undertaken in a single year and to look at the bigger picture. But taking a short-term view often costs more, with uncoordinated projects and inefficient procurement strategies leading to money being wasted, ultimately delivering less and costing more.

A longer-term approach starting with the development of a five- to ten-year estate strategy, which aims to co-ordinate areas such as planned maintenance, future capital spend, decarbonisation, compliance issues and other funding priorities is much more effective.

Having an estate strategy enables a planned approach to be taken to implementing improvements. It identifies priorities for investment and puts a timescale and strategy around how they will be delivered. It ensures money is spent wisely in the places where it will have the most impact and minimises waste. Reactive maintenance is significantly more expensive than planned maintenance and puts huge strain on finances, so the aim is to shift that balance. And the larger the estate, the bigger the rewards to be realized.

With pressures on schools to reach carbon targets as well as reducing energy costs, overlaying a decarbonisation road map onto a plan for maintenance and capital works can ensure economies of scale are achieved. The aim is to look at energy reduction and efficiency at every stage. For example, if a trust is replacing a roof, what would the impact be of increasing the insulation to minimise carbon usage? Can they install photovoltaics at the same time, to save paying for scaffolding twice?

Payback times are reducing

As energy prices rise, innovations around thermal technology become even more affordable because higher energy costs mean the payback periods become shorter. That makes these solutions more viable and means they should be a real consideration.

Again, this means prioritising early investment to secure longer-term benefits, but the reality is that we are now seeing such investments bringing returns in the form of reduced energy bills in less than a year. Better still, the reduction in energy bills over the lifespan of the units could significantly offset the cost of replacing the roof.

When budgets are tight, reluctance to invest capital is understandable. However, schools and trusts can apply for funds for such works from the £1.4 billion Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which aims to reduce emissions from public sector buildings by 75 per cent by 2030.

Education settings are eligible to apply for this fund at various stages of the year. And while any grant under that scheme is likely to be insufficient to cover all costs, it’s a contribution that’s not to be ignored.

The only question remaining is whether the fund – or indeed school budgets – will survive the autumn statement. Either way, investment in energy efficiency is now a top priority, and some progress is within everyone’s reach.

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