Colleges can take the lead now to go beyond net zero

The further education sector is in the perfect place to lead the nation on decarbonising heating – and ministers are keen to hear from pioneers

The further education sector is in the perfect place to lead the nation on decarbonising heating – and ministers are keen to hear from pioneers

2 Feb 2024, 9:15

As a world, we cannot go on burning fossil fuels and overheating our planet. Failure to act will lead to more problems locally, with freak weather such as storms and flooding becoming more common and more extreme. Even worse will be the effect in countries more vulnerable than us, where bad weather means crop failure and famine and flooding means houses, livelihoods and people literally washed away.

It is right that our country is committed to net zero. Everyone is going to have to play their part. That is why Diana Barran – one of the better education ministers I worked with – recently announced that she and the Department for Education were working on a net zero plan right now. We need to hold them to account to do so. 

Some decisions are categorically for government, and we should leave them to it. Only government can ensure we install more wind, more interconnectors with Europe and elsewhere. 

The hard one is heat. A lot of UK emissions come from gas boilers. I write this column in my gas boiler centrally-heated house. There is a good chance that you are reading it in similar circumstances. The same will be true for colleges: gas, or even less clean fossil fuels are used extensively across the sector. That is going to have to stop. 

The best approach is likely to be a ground source heat pump. For colleges with sufficient grounds this will be quite easy. You dig a 4-foot deep trench and lay what is known in the trade as a “horizontal slinky” – a pipe that goes round and round along the bottom of the trench. It collects some heat from the ground (no matter how cold it is, the heat is concentrated) and bingo, you have a nice warm building. If you have playing fields and a car park, you know what to do. Go for it. 

For colleges without sufficient grounds the best approach is likely to be a deep bore hole system. Get yourself a very large drill bit and excavate 200 metres deep into the rock. Put your array straight down, around a U bend, and back up again. If one is not enough, put another one nearby. 

Go and meet Baroness Barran; I bet she will see you

This technology is proven, but it is not yet common. The country needs to practise, because as the old cliché goes, practice makes perfect. Experience certainly lowers costs. And where better to practise than with the FE estate? After all, it will be further education that will be training people to install these arrays. Nobody is better-placed to be a pioneer in this area. 

Train the people and have them install your own heat pumps. And when you train your students, work out where the current government regulations are helpful, where there is unnecessary red tape and where more training or more certification would lead to a better result. 

You should find a coalition of the willing: colleges with large grounds, some with apparently terrible sites. Go and meet Baroness Barran; I bet she will see you. Offer to work together with each other, with experts and with her and the department to come up with a plan. Implement that plan, and come up with lessons learned. We want to learn how to deliver net zero at least cost, with least maintenance and least disruption. Those lessons will apply not just to the further education estate but to schools as well. Not only that, but they will apply to hospitals, prisons and every part of the massive government estate. 

I also think we can be more ambitious. Colleges need heat mainly during the day. Houses need heat mainly in the evenings. Can we come up with a solution whereby your array heats your buildings in the day and nearby houses in the evening? That would mean lower capital costs of decarbonisation for households, a revenue stream for colleges, and getting to net zero more quickly and easily as a nation.

Looks like a win-win-win to me. 

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  1. PFI 2.0

    In next weeks’ episode, we apply the exact same rationale to the approaching staff retention crisis in finance departments up and down the land. Staff will be offered support delivered by students in crucial areas such as risk management, financial planning, decision making and accountability.