Educating Essex’s school has a lesson in solar value


Passmores Academy in Harlow is best known for the Channel 4 documentary series, Educating Essex. What many do not know is that soon after the series was filmed, the school moved a mile down the road to a new £24m campus, reports Mike Hardware.

While the series was being filmed, principal and star, Vic Goddard, was also working with contractor Wilmott Dixon to design and build the best possible facility in which young people could learn and thrive. The collaborative way the design and build contractor and Passmores worked together to deliver a successful project is being applauded by many.

Sustainability was a key throughout the school procurement process. The use of daylight, solar shading, natural ventilation, thermal mass to reduce the need for air conditioning, and brown roofs to improve site biodiversity, were all incorporated within the design. While a system of greywater collection and use was being considered solar photovoltaics (PV) came into the discussion. Goddard explained: “The greywater system was going to cost in excess of £200,000 just to enable us to flush the toilets. This seemed a waste and was not really value for money.”

The building was designed to achieve at least a Very Good rating under the under the BREEAM for Schools 2008 assessment. Lighting was identified as a major energy user, so the school shifted its focus, Goddard said. “As the sports hall roof was now not being used for rainwater collection, the suggestion was made that it could be used to mount solar panels.”

Solar value

Ultima Networks installed 220 solar panels, providing 49.5KW of power. The installation is owned by UK Solar, which receives the Feed-in Tariff, with the school benefitting from the power generated, which provides savings by offsetting against grid electricity. Alan Simpson, Passmores’ premises manager, (pictured below) said: “The solar panels are saving the school in the region of £6,000 per year, not an inconsiderable sum considering funding issues facing our schools at the moment.”

Although not relevant at Passmores, the return on capital is in the region of 7%, providing a capital payback period for UK Solar of around eight years.

However, environment and climate change secretary Amber Rudd recently announced that subsidies for rooftop applications, such as that at Passmores, are to be reduced significantly from January.

The government argues that the cost of solar has come down far quicker than anticipated and the IMG_1514subsidies have to fall to protect household energy bills. The industry and community organisations have reacted with dismay at the scale of the cuts and have countered that the cuts are too large to sustain a viable industry going forward. They will impact on not just domestic and commercial projects but also the increasing number of community projects, including schools such as Passmores.

Countering the cuts

The Solar Trade Association (STA) is understandably unimpressed with the proposed cuts. Mike Landy, head of policy, said: “We really are astonished at how self-defeating these proposals are.” He added: “We are calling on the government to work with the solar industry to deliver our plan (published in June) for a rapid but stable glide path to subsidy-free solar.”

Alan Simpson is similarly disappointed with the subsidy reductions. He said: “Installing solar has been an excellent option for schools, academies and skill centres across the country, providing income and sustainability. With subsidy cuts, the original funding option which we used at Passmores is no longer possible, and questions the entire viability of solar, although the environmental benefits remain.

“Reduction in our carbon footprint should be the major driving force for all PV installations, helping us protect the environment and future for the young people we are teaching.”

Goddard admits that not many people know that Passmores has solar PV: “It is a bit of a secret,” he said. “We have not made as much of it as we should with our pupils, so they understand about global warming and renewable energy, but that is about to change.

“We should also have been using this as an example to other schools, demonstrating how easy it was to install, the financial benefits to us, and at the same time doing our bit for the environment.”

The solar industry, meanwhile, having already delivered the equivalent installed capacity of two IMG_1511nuclear power stations in just the last four years, is holding out hope that it can head off the worst of the government’s proposed cuts. With 30,000 jobs at stake, the industry hopes the government will see the benefit of it continuing to offer its extremely popular, and ever more cost-effective, clean energy to UK households, businesses and schools.


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