School enjoys solarPV without capital outlay

With the Feed-in Tariff soon to be reduced significantly, we look at the type of highly successful solar PV project that is under threat.

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 brand new £24 million campus.

While the series was being filmed, the star and principal of the Academy, Vic Goddard, was also working hand-in-hand with contractor Wilmott Dixon to design and build the best possible facility in which young people could learn and thrive. In this, he was successful, and the collaborative way the design and build contractor worked with Passmores has been 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. It was while a system of grey water collection and use was being considered that solar PV came to light. Vic Goddard explained: ‘The grey water 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 it was this that we needed to focus on more, Vic Goddard explained: ‘As the sports hall roof was now not being used for rain water collection, the suggestion was made that it could be used to mount solar panels.’

The options were explored, and it was decided to choose an arrangement that involved no capital outlay for the school, but enabled it to benefit from the electricity generated. Ultima Networks installed 220 solar panels, providing 50 kW of power. The installation is owned by UK Solar, which benefits from the Feed-in Tariff, with the school using the power generated, which offsets against grid electricity.

Alan Simpson, Passmores’ premises manager, explained: ‘The solar panels are saving the school in the region of £6000 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.

Alan Simpson continued: ‘The installation was slightly more challenging due to the roof of the building being so high. Originally the panels were flat but due to the brown roof garden we found that the grass growing between the panels was severely impacting on the system performance. The panels were lifted and re-installed at an angle of approximately 25° to overcome the issue.

solarPV, solar PV, photovoltaic, renewable energy
This installation of 220 solar photo-voltaic panels is saving Passmores Academy around £6000 a year.

Amber Rudd MP, Secretary of State for Environment & Climate Change, recently announced that subsidies for new rooftop applications, such as that at Passmores, are to be reduced significantly from January 2016.

The Government argues that the cost of solar has come down far more quickly than anticipated and the subsidies have to fall to protect household energy bills. 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 not just domestic and commercial projects but also the increasing number of new community projects, including schools such as Passmores.

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. 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, academy's 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.’

Vic Goddard admits that not many people know that Passmores has solar PV: ‘It is a bit of a secret. 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 nuclear 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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