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An old school building in the Diocese of Blackburn in the process of being decarbonised, as outlined in this article originally featured in the Church Times. 

In 2020, the General Synod of The Church of England drastically amended plans from the Bishops for the whole Church to achieve net zero carbon emissions, moving the target date forward from 2045 to just 2030, now only eight-and-a-half years away.

There were varied reactions to the news, but, in Blackburn Diocese, people got to work.

The deputy director of education, Sam Johnson, says that it was immediately apparent that church schools needed to play their part in cutting emissions if the Church was to be successful in hitting its 2030 target. But, at first, his team was “flailing around at the edges”, daunted by the enormous scope of the task.

The catalyst for action came when the diocese bid for, and won, £10 million in grants from the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme. This was for two things, Mr Johnson explains: “One was to actually try and decarbonise some school buildings; but two, and equally important, was to work out how to do that, because no one, as far as I can find out, has tried to do a research project on how you retrofit to decarbonise school buildings.”

Since March, 25 schools have signed up to the project, which would be a blueprint for other dioceses and school governors to follow.

The work now under way involves everything from installing double glazing and LED lighting to removing oil-fired boilers and replacing them with electric heat pumps, digging up fields to lay kilometres of new piping, fitting solar panels, and even upgrading the electricity supply to cope with the increased demand.

“We simply didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Mr Johnson says; so his team have been meticulously recording all their learning and the mistakes that they have made along the way, as they decarbonise centuries-old school buildings. “A lot of what we’re doing is capturing that and sharing it across the sector, and particularly the church-school sector: to say ‘This, in real life, is how it works,’ what you need to be thinking about, and, essentially, what it costs.”

And the costs are huge. In fact, they are so large as to be prohibitive for most schools without access to a multi-million-pound government grant, he admits. For some schools, there was initially no space to put in a heat pump, as they take up more room than the boilers that they replace. Another costly surprise was the noise: schools have had to install tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of acoustic shielding to ensure that the new heat pumps do not make teaching impossible.

“At some schools, we are having to spend up to £75,000 just to increase the electricity supply so that we can run those air-source heat pumps,” Mr Johnson says. Add in the new heating-distribution system (old-style radiators are insufficient), solar panels on the roof, and hugely increased electricity bills — and it is little wonder that some head teachers have pulled their schools out of the pilot.

Mr Johnson says that the experience has given him a simple mantra: “Everything is possible — we’ve met pretty much met every challenge we could find. Everything is expensive — and more than you think it’s going to be. And everything is disruptive.”

Now, about £7 million of the grant has been spent, half the schools are near to finishing their works, and the rest will be complete by Christmas. And, perhaps more importantly, the lessons learned are being shared widely: by a professional film documentary; media briefings sent out by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; and a six-week training programme with the University of Sheffield’s architecture school.

The first step for every church school should be to develop a heat-decarbonisation plan, Mr Johnson says.

Then, focus on cheap items such as LED lighting or solar panels, while waiting to bid for government funds to implement the costly and disruptive full decarbonisation laid out in the Blackburn blueprint. “We know what that journey is going to have to look like.”

The cost will probably reach into the hundreds of millions; but at least there is now a chance to move forward for 2030.

  • Article first published in The Church Times




November 2021