Sustainable Energy Pathways for Otago Schools

| By National Team

Tamanuiterā: The sun - energy, light, heat

Supporting schools to transition to sustainable energy, increasing energy efficiency, creating more comfortable and healthy learning environments and integrating energy learning.

Half of Otago schools still use coal as their energy source for heating. Others have significant energy issues needing addressing, including previous coal boiler replacement attempts being less than ideal or requiring additional work.

Enviroschools works with a large number of schools in Otago that are currently using coal and would like to transition to more sustainable energy sources for their heating.  This transition is a complex process which individual schools rarely have the expertise to confidently navigate. While the Ministry of Education (MoE) utilises project managers to assist schools with large capital projects, their knowledge base is understandably broad industry and construction knowledge, rather than specific technical expertise related to the relationships between heating, ventilation, and specific site challenges and the installation of coal alternative energy sources.

To date, schools have received MoE funding for replacement work when their boiler is deemed end-of-life or when it fails. Individual schools are generally left to devise their own plans for replacement; these decisions are often made on short timelines, with little opportunity for schools to benefit from other schools’ experiences with similar projects, weave into teaching and learning, or to consult with subject matter experts. Additionally, there is currently no capacity for bulk buying of equipment to provide wholesale savings. Opportunities for experience sharing and bulk buying are currently not facilitated by the various agencies working with schools on infrastructure projects.  With additional funding being made available for schools to replace coal boilers through the Government’s decarbonisation fund and the demand for expertise advice increases along with opportunities for greater collaboration, bulk buying and schools sharing their experience.

Enviroschools considers that upgrading energy systems at schools, and the resulting data, creates real-life learning opportunities. Teaching and learning about energy and environmental impacts are not currently integrated into school energy work.

A collaborative pilot to explore holistic energy system evaluation and transitions plans

In 2019 Enviroschools established a collaborative pilot project to work with schools to create a best practice guide to transition to sustainable energy. Organisations involved in the pilot work were Enviroschools, independent energy experts Mark Mason and Hans Pietsch, University of Otago, Dunedin City Council, Otago Regional Council, the Ministry of Education and various community stakeholders.

The pilot worked with six Otago schools – Opoho School, Waitaki Boys High School, Tokomairiro High School, Fairfield Primary School, Macandrew Bay School and Dunedin North Intermediate – to undertake a holistic evaluation of their energy systems, and to plan a transition from coal fired boilers to cleaner heating.

A whole school learning opportunity

The project focused on a holistic approach to energy systems that integrated student learning, good independent advice and data to find best solutions.

The Enviroschools action-learning approach supports schools to explore a range of alternatives before taking the most appropriate action for their school.

Having the Enviroschools action-learning approach underpin the project meant that it was not just a technical exercise, rather the whole process was an opportunity for staff and students to acquire knowledge and skills and take ownership of the process in their own school. The funding via Toimata Foundation supported a consultant to work alongside the schools, as well as purchase equipment such as heat meters and other sensors.

Schools need a range of assistance to support their unique situations  

In 2020 Seed funding from Toimata Foundation enabled Mark Mason and Hans Pietsch to work with Robyn Zink, Regional Coordinator of Enviroschools in Otago, to provide impartial, independent advice to a group of schools, including:

  • the development of tailored, holistic energy plans for schools to assist with each school’s current energy and indoor air quality issues;
  • the development of business cases; and
  • detailed implementation plans to carry out the physical work required.

While each school situation is different, and requires specific plans, there are a number of areas that emerged as a common theme where schools needed particular assistance, including:

A school principal inspects the heating system in a school.

  • Developing holistic energy plans,
  • Designing solutions for the long-term, including factoring in future building, expansion, etc.,
  • Achieving or exceeding the Ministry of Education’s guidelines for Indoor Air Quality and Thermal Comfort,
  • Automated zone control of heating systems,
  • Mechanical design for practical heat distribution,
  • Boiler management and maintenance
  • Heat source selection (e.g. wood pellets versus wood chips),
  • Window function as part of the overall building systems,
  • Energy data and modelling,
  • Electrical connections and load control opportunities to reduce usage in peak demand times,
  • Lighting upgrades,
  • Solar potential,
  • Additional sustainability and resilience opportunities (e.g. rainwater harvesting, battery banks).

Working together for a sustainable future 

The pilot highlighted that schools have been receiving advice that often resulted in the installation of biomass heating systems that a) cost much more than they need to and b) are not fit for purpose. Costs include higher upfront expenses as well as years of ongoing elevated operating expenses related to running equipment that is unnecessarily oversized or otherwise inappropriate for the school’s needs. Given the additional funding being made available through the Government De-carbonisation programme the need for good quality expert advice is even more important.

By taking a collaborative action learning approach schools could access the experiences of other schools, technical expertise and the bulk buying of equipment to provide wholesale savings.  2021 will see the final report along with savings, measurements and more detailed case studies compiled.

Banner image: Experts Hans Pitisch, Jordana Whyte, and Mark Mason look at the wood pellet heating system at a primary school while working on the project.