It’s September 2008, and the staff and students of Penryn College in Cornwall are arriving for day one in their brand new building.
Everyone is excited, but perhaps none more than Andy Latham – a physics teacher and the college’s sustainability coordinator. On paper, the £26m structure is a 10:10er’s dream – insulated to the nines, bristling with energy-saving technology and laid out to make the best use of natural light. Everyone assumed that energy usage would plummet.
But the arrival of the first set of bills wasn’t quite the triumph Andy and his colleagues had anticipated. The building was burning through energy, and the utilities costs were coming in tens of thousands of pounds over budget.
Something was clearly amiss, and Andy was tasked with getting things under control. Luckily he didn’t have to work alone. The school’s environmental leadership programme, that puts students in charge of an increasingly challenging series of environmental projects, was starting to turn out kids with the confidence and skill to lend a hand.
But to get things moving, Andy needed a clever hook to give the project some momentum. Enter 10:10.
“Having that target and a clear timeframe gave us the impetus to really drill down and find out what was going on,” he explained. “The kids often said they couldn’t make any difference by themselves, but doing it under 10:10 made it clear that this was part of something bigger. They got really fired up about being part of a national effort.”
The students became what Andycalls ‘energy detectives’, descending on classrooms and corridors during break times to hunt down Penryn’s energy excesses.
The aim was to account for every penny on the college’s energy bill, and they left no stone unturned. Magnifying glasses and outlandish facial hair were shunned in favour of clipboards and plug-in energy meters as the student detectives gave the building an appliance-by-appliance inspection.
The kids often said they couldn’t make any difference by themselves, but doing it under 10:10 made it clear that this was part of something bigger.
They also quizzed teachers, the caretaker and the building manager, and proved to be highly effective interrogators. “Students are canny people – they can ask the thorny questions adults wouldn’t touch.”
The detectives’ discoveries made for uncomfortable reading. Motion-sensitive lights were set to stay on for an hour after they were first triggered. Computers didn’t shut down until 7.30pm, four hours after most students go home. Photocopiers and wall-mounted display screens were running 24/7 (even during weekends and holidays), despite having timed switch-off capability.
The school’s state-of-the-art biomass boiler was being used as a back-up for conventional gas heating, rather than vice versa. It was as if, in short, everything had been set to use as much energy as possible.
Embarrassing as these findings were, however, there was an upside. Most of the energy waste arose from systems being carelessly set up, rather than from fundamental problems with the design of the building. This meant that fixing them was a matter of adjusting some dials rather than ripping out wiring and rebuilding walls.
In fact, getting the hang of the new building management system (BMS) was the key to getting the college’s energy usage back on track. A phone call to the BMS company revealed that they could get custom reports and energy breakdowns delivered by email – a refreshing change from the bewildering stream of raw data they’d been getting previously.
According to Andy, this was the breakthrough moment. “Once we learned what was possible and worked out what we wanted out of the system, we were able to start using it really effectively.”
And although there was some inevitable overcorrection to begin with (Andy describes students jumping up and down in corridors to get the lights on), the process was fairly painless; largely thanks to wholehearted support from the “fantastic” caretaker and building manager.
Automated systems made a big difference, but there was still room for some good old-fashioned behaviour changes. Andy’s team worked hard to foster the idea of a ‘jumper school’, with temperatures set to be comfortable for people wearing school jumpers rather than shirt sleeves.
They also recognised the need to target staff specifically – as Andy puts it “they’re mainly the ones turning things on and off. The environmental leaders, putting the newly-liberated BMS data to work, set up an energy-saving competition between departments, a move that Andy says helped staff start seeing energy as their responsibility for the first time.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. After a few weeks of head-scratching, Andy’s team discovered that most of the school’s hot water came from individual, electric heaters under each sink that cannot be turned off. They also found that many light fittings were mounted in false ceilings, and were throwing a good portion of the illumination into the cavity above.
Andy doesn’t see these problems being corrected any time soon. “It would cost a huge amount to replace this stuff, so we’ll have to live with it for the time being. From here, we can encourage changes in habits, but we’d have trouble justifying investment in the building itself.”
But even with the occasional disappointment, Penryn’s 10:10 effort was a clear success. The school’s energy consumption fell by more than 16%, with overall financial savings coming in at just under £40,000 in the first year.
The school’s energy consumption fell by more than 16%, with overall financial savings coming in at just under £40,000 in the first year.
No surprise, then, that Andy is already using the lessons from last year to plan his next moves. First on the list is a more strategic approach to heating, which he says will be needed to get widespread acceptance for the idea of a ‘jumper school’. “The mistake we made was ploughing in and reducing the temperature drastically. You need to drop it gradually, to give people time to get used to the change.”
With the technology and building management side of things now more or less on track, this slow, unpredictable process of changing attitudes and expectations will only get more important to Penryn’s carbon-cutting effort. “The lesson for me is that people have got to believe in what you’re doing. My job is to do a lot of talking and convincing, rather than storming in and saying ‘Right, we’re going to do this’.”
Andy also sees potential for his work to have a positive influence beyond the school gates. “The ripple effect is really interesting – we’ve got 1,200 students here, and they’re raising awareness of energy use at home with parents. Last term I had a couple of year 11s leaving, they thanked me and said ‘I’ll never forget you for getting me to turn the computer off every night.’
These are year 11 lads, not part of the leaders programme or anything, and they’ve gone home and done something about it.”