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Wild is the wind

The pressure is growing to reduce school fuel bills. One answer is eco-friendly technology, writes Phil Revell.

People who have been there on holiday will agree that Skegness is an awfully appropriate place to site a wind turbine. After all, it's so bracing. The 2.5KW turbine at Skegness grammar school powers 31 computers in a computer room, as well as the lighting circuit in the science block and the hot water system in the same building.

"There aren't many days when it doesn't turn," says Andrew Rigby, the headteacher.

The idea stemmed from when Mr Rigby and his head of science, Paul Randall came across The Wolfson Foundation, which offers schools grants for science and technology projects.

"Most schools apply for computers," says Mr Rigby,"But we have always been interested in alternative energy. We bid for the wind turbine, 2.5 KW of solar panels, an automatic weather station, a monitoring system and a computer."

Wolfson approved the bid and the school was given clearance to spend pound;50,000. The actual cost came to nearer pound;75,000, so Mr Rigby would not recommend the venture to anyone looking for budget savings.

"It would be a very, very long payback period," he says. But the primary goal was educational, and that goal has been achieved. Mr Rigby's pupils now have a much deeper awareness of the issues surrounding energy and sustainability, because their memories are jogged every time they walk outside.

In Shropshire, primary head Paul Sanderson had the same motivation. He has been given the green light to erect a similar turbine at Ladygrove primary school in Telford.

"We've got planning permission - it's all go now," he says. The project is part of the school's bid for Eco School status, an award scheme that recognises efficient fuel savings ."We're working towards that," he adds.

Ladygrove is a less ambitious project, costing less than pound;4,000. The money is coming from the Marches Energy Agency, which, in turn, is distributing funds given by the power company NPower.

But both schools had problems with planning permission. Neighbours were concerned about the visual impact and noise, perhaps imagining the kind of giant turbines seen on offshore sites or in the Welsh mountains. Some couldn't understand why the schools were embarking on a project that would result in annual savings of just a few hundred pounds.

"We haven't done this to save money," says Mr Sanderson."It's more for sustainability and for educational reasons."

But there are savings, however small, and Telford and Wrekin Council's energy conservation officer Mike Webb is keen to persuade schools to consider the budgetary advantages as well. His argument is that the savings are incremental, especially if the money is then invested in further energy-saving measures.

"And it's about raising awareness," he says."You can change behaviour patterns."

A good starting point for schools is the Eco Warrior monitoring system. This isn't an educational product - it was developed for industry. Mr Sanderson had it installed and thinks it is "brilliant". Basically, it is a software system that monitors outputs.

"Electricity meters, gas meters, water meters, people walking past - anything that can b electronically monitored," says Mr Webb. "It has created huge interest in schools."

Mr Sanderson adds: "It analyses all your energy use - you can look back at your peaks and troughs."

Information is available in real time and the software is user-friendly, which means children can use the data in class projects.

Apex Engineers, the firm that produces the product, is yet to market the system extensively to schools, because it is still investigating how heads are using it in an educational context. But it is likely that Eco Warrior will be available nationally by the autumn.

Apex director Steve Lewis says: "We're thinking of building in sensors so that inside and outside temperatures could be monitored alongside energy usage."

Software and associated wiring would cost about pound;3,000 for a primary school, but heads could probably recover most of the cost by approaching Create, the Centre for Research Education and Energy.

Create is a non-profitmaking organisation that was set up to promote energy education in schools. It can offer 50 per cent rebates, up to a maximum of pound;3,000, for schemes that promote energy-efficient measures. Eco Warrior qualifies for funding if it is installed alongside energy-saving equipment.

Mr Webb argues that schools are rarely energy-efficient, with relatively small investments having the potential to save significant sums. Most heads assume the biggest savings are to be made on heating, but Mr Webb disagrees: "Heating is usually controlled by thermostats,' he says. "If schools want to save money, they need to target lighting."

Switches that automatically turn off lights; low-energy bulbs; raising awareness - these can save thousands of pounds.

Another potential saving is with computers, which are often left switched on.

"Screen savers are not energy savers and they actually prevent the computer's energy-saving systems from working," Mr Webb explains.

He says it costs pound;438 per KW to leave an appliance switched on all year. A computer and screen uses about 200 watts, leaving a bill of pound;87 per computer, per year if the machine is left on. A third of that could be saved by switching monitors off.

Equally, a typical classroom with fluorescent lighting uses about 1000 watts - pound;438 a year.

Energy saving should be high on head's agendas since the Climate Change Levy, agreed at Kytoto, has meant higher fuel bills from last month. Schools have also been asked by Whitehall to cut fuel consumption by 1 per cent per year until 2010. In the long run, it is in all our interests that children learn the realities of life on a planet with limited resources.

contactsWatermark Create: a not-for-profit organisation, partly funded by government to promote energy education and sustainable development. Tel: 01942 322271; School Energy: a trust funded by government and industry to promote energy saving. Cash rebates available to schools for energy-saving measures. Tel: 0870 7000 457; Eco Schools: The Wolfson Foundation: Tel: 020 7323 5730 The British Wind Energy Association: APEX Engineers: makes Eco Warrior. Tel: 01630 661313

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