A Leicester-based community energy group has joined forces with the Energy Systems Catapult, Loughborough University and Leicester City Council to help schools across the region slash energy bills and carbon emissions.

Often the fulcrum of their local communities, schools represent a quarter of public sector carbon emissions, according to new research. Yet while two-thirds of local authorities have declared a climate emergency, many do not yet have plans in place to tackle school emissions.

However, Green Fox Community Energy Co-operative has, in partnership with clean tech innovation hub Energy Systems Catapult, Loughborough University’s Centre For Renewable Energy Systems Technology and Leicester City Council, devised a replicable model that schools can adopt to decarbonise.

Supported by the Next Generation and community business accelerator, Power to Change, the initiative looks to create a community-focused energy services company to manage the risk and complexity of generating funds and introducing carbon-saving measures. Company responsibilities also span sourcing the right low carbon solutions for each school, and managing bills and energy savings on its behalf.

Finance for capital investment is raised via a public share offer to locals – ensuring energy assets are owned and held for the benefit of the community – with a return on investment and involvement in decision-making part of the offer.

With this in mind, Green Fox and its project partners have teamed up with Attenborough Learning Trust – a Leicester-based body covering Sparkenhoe and Highfield primary schools as well as Uplands and Green Lane infant schools – to develop a multi-stage business model by harnessing real-time energy data from the schools.

Two-step model

Designed and validated by energy innovation experts at Energy Systems Catapult and Loughborough University, the business model involves two stages – a ‘base model’ and a ‘base model plus’.

The ‘base model’ uses proven low carbon technology – for example solar panels and efficiency measures – which reduces overall energy cost, and can generate income. It uses share offer generated capital to start the decarbonisation process and lay financial foundations for the business model.

Though requiring further capital investment, the ‘base model plus’ aims to enable full decarbonisation by installing air source heat pumps and generating extra value through emerging energy markets – including through renewable tariffs, flexibility services and exporting surplus energy back to the grid.

The co-operative is not-for-profit, so any additional revenue raised would be passed on through further bill savings to the school.

Cash and carbon savings

The project found that implementing the base model across the schools would yield 42% savings on the Attenborough Learning Trust’s energy bill, 21% carbon reductions and a six-year payback on an initial capital investment of £215,000.

Based on this initial outlay, its estimated that scaling up the model to all 80 primary schools in Leicester would cost £4.3 million, with nationwide coverage of England’s 16,800 primary schools slated to cost £907 million.

While upgrading to the ‘base model plus’ would require £925,000 of initial capital, it would enable 63% further emissions reduction across the schools – leading to full decarbonisation – and potential savings of £2,000 per year by exporting renewable electricity back to the grid.

‘Fully costed pathway’ to net zero goals

Positioning community organisations at the “forefront of energy innovation”, Ben Dodd, executive director of Green Fox Community Energy Co-operative, lauded the ability of similar organisations to engage with local communities, bolster practical and meaningful efforts to tackle climate change, and ensure that environmental, social and financial benefits stay within local economies.

“This model brings together energy efficiency, renewable energy and emerging energy markets to provide a fully costed pathway to our net zero goals. It allows schools to reduce their energy bills and put sustainability back at the core of the curriculum,” he said.

Simon Briggs, practice manager for business model innovation at Energy Systems Catapult, added that schools have “huge potential” to help drive local level decarbonisation efforts.

“Many schools may not know where to start to improve their energy efficiency and become zero carbon, and that’s where this model can help,” he explained. “It gives schools a blueprint to work with that could reduce the financial risk and actively involve the community – not least the younger generations for whom we need to keep our planet healthy.”

The report from the project – Delivering Zero Carbon Schools: A practical and innovative business model for the community energy sector – is available online.

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