From education to employment

How educators can cut costs and carbon footprints with energy-efficient systems

Martin Fahey

Energy bills are rising across the UK, and everyone from schools to universities are under pressure. A recent poll found headteachers anticipating a 106% rise in energy costs over 2022, and some schools are even reducing spending on teaching staff and cutting school hours to combat costs. The picture is similar for universities, with 56% of students having to borrow money to support their energy bills. 

Schools and universities also have finite budgets to spread across multiple areas – including sustainability. As inflation and energy bills rise, there is a risk that less budget can be set aside for improvements to energy efficiency and supporting carbon reduction – but this is exactly what is needed if we are to meet vital environmental goals.

In order to combat rising costs while also meeting increasingly stringent environmental regulations, and keeping students and staff comfortable and healthy, schools and universities should re-look at how they heat, cool and ventilate spaces. 

The challenge of sustainability

For both schools and universities, there is an ongoing drive towards sustainable operations in everything they do. An NUS survey found that 86% of university students feel that sustainable development is something that universities should actively promote, and universities have made public commitments to achieving net-zero carbon by 2050 – or sooner – in response.

There is also more pressure than ever for universities and schools to commit to reaching net-zero – for example, Students Organising for Sustainability is calling on all universities to commit to reaching the goal by 2030. Due to these demands, from both students and regulatory boards, hitting carbon emission goals will only become more important for educators, so taking action now is key.

Heating and cooling are large drivers of carbon emissions. In fact, 40% of the UKs emissions come from heating and hot water – so decarbonising education estates’ heating systems will make a significant impact on the overall sustainability of a school or university. It’s also worth remembering that when the right technology is chosen, reducing carbon and saving on running costs can go hand in hand.

Boosting efficiency in education with heat pumps 

Heat pumps require very little energy to run and can be a more cost-effective option for schools and universities than carbon-intensive gas or oil. The technology relies on electricity, which will support schools and universities in their drive to reduce their carbon output and put them on track to meet the government’s net-zero targets.

Modern heat pumps offer a flexible and modular design which make them ideal for a variety of buildings across a range of sizes. This flexibility is a perfect choice for the education sector’s wide variety of spaces, from small offices and classrooms in schools, to large student accommodation blocks and lecture halls at universities. Schools and universities are made up of a diverse mix of buildings, including facilities such as gyms, canteens, and sports halls, and need solutions which can address different occupancy levels and uses. 

Requiring only water and an electricity connection, heat pumps are also a low-maintenance technology that will reduce pressure on stretched school and university engineering teams and result in a lower number of callouts. By installing more reliable hardware, engineering teams will have more time to improve the school’s sustainability measures and spend less time fixing broken appliances.

Adding air conditioning 

Keeping students cool, particularly through the summer, is vital. This year’s heatwave caused more than 70 school closures in high alert areas, and in some cases, air conditioning may now be a requirement to keep students safe and learning productively.  

Modern air conditioning systems use refrigerants with a lower Global Warming Potential (GWP) such as R32, which also make it is possible to lower overall carbon emissions. 

With lower GWP refrigerant,  up to 20% less refrigerant is used than in the equivalent systems, so schools and universities can keep the total amount of refrigerant used across their estate down, and hit overall sustainability targets.  

Modern air conditioning systems also offer heat recovery capabilities, so that heat energy used to cool a gym or a server room for example, can be diverted to spaces that need heating or even to the hot water supply. This not only reduces the overall energy needed to heat and cool individual spaces, but it can also help lower the carbon emissions of the whole system.

Reducing the carbon footprint of schools and universities is more important than ever.  81% of adults in the UK have made lifestyle changes to help tackle climate change, and with ambitious government targets, the education sector must also play a role in making sustainable changes. 

To reach climate goals – while keeping costs down and students comfortable and safe – moving towards more efficient heating and cooling systems, which can keep running costs low, is vital.  By optimising these technologies, educators can provide full occupant comfort and be both environmentally and economically conscious.

By Martin Fahey, Head of Sustainability at Mitsubishi Electric

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