The School Decarbonisation Challenge

Published: 22 April 2021

An exploratory study on behalf of the Department for Education

Schools in England represent a quarter of public sector carbon emissions in the country, so successful decarbonisation is essential to helping wider public sector estate and the UK, in general, deliver on its target of achieving 2050 net zero carbon targets.

The Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy commissioned Energy Systems Catapult to deliver a short investigation with the aim of identifying the principal challenges and opportunities associated with decarbonising the English school estate.

Key points

Various sources of information have been reviewed to glean key insights to help inform this investigation. The findings demonstrate that:

  • Retrofit of existing schools to a low carbon, net zero or even “energy plus” standard is perfectly possible.
  • There is a wealth of data already in existence that could be used to develop valuable insights into the school estate, allowing a targeted approach to energy reduction. However much of the most useful data is not readily available to the DfE which limits the analysis that can be done.
  • Higher than expected energy consumption is often due to issues with Building Management Systems and controls, or the building being operated in a way that was not accounted for during the design phase.
  • Current regulations are “design compliance” based – there is little focus on the actual “achieved operational performance” and there is evidence that new schools often generate much more carbon than designed.
  • Current policy and regulation around school energy standards are insufficient to meet a net zero future. Every new school built today is one more that requires additional investment to meet the net zero target.
  • The cost of retrofit will vary between schools but in some cases could be more expensive than building a new school. An estate wide approach to identifying the most cost-effective route to decarbonisation is therefore essential.

There is also a wealth of opportunities to tackle and overcome the challenges identified. For example, there are existing methodologies from other sectors aimed at reducing energy use that could be adapted for application to the school estate. Obtaining available data could generate valuable information to help identify the best route forward for particular schools, and there is huge scope for identifying areas of poor energy management through monitoring and improving energy management through the provision of enhanced guidance to school staff and management.