Fresh-air thinking

10th June 2005 at 01:00
If your school takes the environment seriously, it should find ways to reduce carbon emissions. Sarah French visits a pupil-driven initiative

As schoolgirls Emma Fawcett and Laura White walk along the drive into their college, a gust of wind almost lifts them off their feet. Spen Valley sports college lies at the bottom of a lane, but in this part of West Yorkshire even the valleys are exposed. The school is still battered by the breeze on a relatively calm day. It is this natural power that Emma, Laura and other members of the Spen Valley renewable energy committee will soon be harnessing.

At half-term, a 15- metre wind turbine with three five-metre blades was craned on to a concrete base installed behind trees to the left of the school reception. It was the climax to more than 18 months of hard work and commitment by the committee, a sub-group of the college's pupil council.

History teacher Gary Deighton explains how it began: "The students had enjoyed what they had achieved in improving the college environment, but they felt they were ready to tackle something bigger."

With Spen Valley facing high energy bills, they cut their teeth on an audit of the building, questioning staff and calculating heat loss and energy wastage. Officers from Kirklees, the local authority, checked their results and awarded them pound;35,000 to implement energy-saving measures.

Craving a project that was bigger in scale and impact, the ambitious group began investigating the building of a wind turbine in the college grounds.

To win community backing they embarked on a mammoth local consultation exercise, conducting face to face interviews with business owners and delivering notices to every home inviting residents to open evenings in school.

They encountered some opposition but were ready for it. "Some people objected through lack of knowledge," explains Jessica Firth, 14. "Once we'd told them that it would be hidden by trees and it wouldn't affect wildlife, they were OK."

With help from Create, a not-for-profit organisation that works to reduce the effects of climate change, and Kirklees council, they secured planning permission and additional funding, including pound;24,000 from Clear Skies, government money for renewable energy projects, giving a total of Pounds 60,000.

The council also helped them identify a suitable turbine and the location where it would catch the most wind. Again, the students led the research, measuring wind speeds three times a day for a month.

Once the turbine is installed, a digital display board in school will show how much power it is creating and how much energy is being saved, information that can be used in science, geography and maths .

The power generated will feed directly into the national grid and then be directed back to supply the college during term time. It's estimated that it will reduce energy costs by 10 per cent, an added bonus says the headteacher, Angela Cross: "The reason for doing it wasn't related to cost.

It was about raising awareness both within school and the wider community."

Committee chairman Paul Freeman, 14, says: "We want to influence other schools and local companies. We are the first school in West Yorkshire to have a wind turbine; we'd like it to be a trigger."

Mr Deighton adds:"These students have done this because they are worried about their generation and generations after them."

It's a view that will strike a chord with scientists and couldn't come at a more opportune moment, with climate change a key issue on the G8 Gleneagles agenda.

Pupils at Spen Valley are not alone in their eagerness to act. Create has produced a sustainable energy programme for primary pupils. Since September, 25 schools in the North West have taken part. It is run with United Utilities at its environment centre in Leigh, just west of Manchester.

Sandy Carter of Create explains:"We show teachers that the concepts of climate change, energy efficiency and renewables can be taught outside science in ways that are relevant across the curriculum."

Organisers of a climate change challenge for sixth formers in the West Country have found benefits in teaching politics and local government.

Working with the Centre for Sustainable Energy, a Bristol charity, students scrutinise how local authorities are meeting renewable energy targets.

Cheryl Gilbert, the centre's education project manager, says:"The students are becoming really informed about the issues by being very inquisitive.

They're not afraid to challenge people to justify their actions."

They will present their findings and opinions at a conference on July 1 to an audience of council officials and regional policy makers where energy managers will be invited to react to the students' findings.

The last word goes to 14-year-old Jessica at Spen Valley: "What we've done says to everyone else,'It's not impossible'. We are not just sitting and talking, we are getting up and doing something about it."

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