Case study: Energy efficiency saves resources and teaches life skills at Solway Primary School

Solway Primary School is educating students and the community with a range of energy efficiency measures that save money and the environment.

Solway Primary School is located in Ashburton – a suburb of Melbourne approximately 12 km south east of Melbourne’s central business district. In 2008 the school began focusing on sustainability when a group of passionate parents formed a Sustainability Committee, with the help of a committed teacher, Venelda Foloshy (who brought knowledge from her sustainability work at a previous school in Canada), and the support of principal Julie Wilkinson. In the same year, Solway signed up to the ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic initiative because they wanted a structure and systems to help them achieve their sustainability goals.

“ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic sets out in really clear terms, using five distinct learning modules, how a school goes about achieving sustainability targets,” says Lona Parry, president of the Sustainability Committee and parent of a grade six student. “It was a huge help.”

The Sustainability Committee set up individual working groups responsible for each of the initiative’s module areas (e.g. energy, waste, water, biodiversity), with a teacher representative leading on each. “We want to teach our children that we have a responsibility to look after our environment,” says Lona. “We want to teach them how to do it at school and at home.”

In June 2012, Solway Primary was certified as a 5 Star school – the pinnacle of ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic schools.

These days, the Sustainability Committee is made up of 20 parents and four teachers: one from each teaching level, including Sustainability Coordinator Rhiannon Quill, a grade four, five and six teacher. The committee meets twice a term and reports regularly to the school council. Rhiannon supervises a Student Sustainability Team, made up of 15 grade four students and headed by two student captains.

Since 2008, the student population of Solway has significantly grown, but the energy use per student has decreased, as proven by the data collected as part of the ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic initiative. This saves money for the school and reinforces good habits for the students. They take home the habits they learn at school and influence their parents and the wider community.

Using solar panels and energy efficient building design Solway’s first sustainability project was the installation of 44 photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of the school hall, generating 4.1 kilowatts of energy. Photovoltaics is a method of generating electrical power by converting the energy from the sun into direct current electricity.

The energy that the solar panels on the school hall create saves money on power bills.

The solar panels were funded by a National Schools Solar Program grant and money from the Victorian State Government: $65,000 in total.

Energy efficiency was carefully built into the infrastructure of Solway’s library, completed in 2011. The extended eaves were designed to avoid direct sunlight, but also to capture enough of it to reduce the need for artificial light. The new library was funded by the Federal Government’s Building the Education Revolution program.

Reducing electricity use with smart technology

Energy efficiency measures have been introduced to Solway Primary gradually. Motion and sensor lighting has been installed in all classrooms, so that lights turn off when rooms are empty or when there is enough sunlight in the room to not warrant artificial light.

Thermometers in all classrooms ensure that heaters, fans and air conditioners are only used when needed. They indicate the optimal temperature for both winter and summer, making it easy for both teachers and students to monitor the heating or cooling, and adjust when needed.

“Helping kids become more conscious about having heaters and fans on the right setting has been a big part of energy reduction for us,” says Rhiannon Quill, Solway’s Sustainability Coordinator.

The classrooms are also equipped with remote control switches that allow users to shut down multiple power switches with one button – making it easy to turn off the power in empty classrooms.

Students reinforce energy efficiency messages

Fans and heaters around the school are paired with signs made by the students that remind the school community to think about how they are using energy. Examples include “Turn off the fan” and “If you’re cold, put on a jumper”.

Lona says she often hears reports of prep students telling their parents to turn off lights when they are not using them. “When they’re coming home and being very vocal about these things, it makes parents feel good about what they’re learning – and educates them.”

Student members of the Sustainability Team make regular assembly presentations to remind the school community of ways to save energy. Since becoming a 5 Star school, Solway Primary School has been invited to share its journey with other schools. Students often create their own presentations and talk to other students about what they’re doing.

“It’s important that the kids feel ownership of their sustainability activities,” says Rhiannon. It makes it a more meaningful and positive learning experience, and more likely that they will continue to act sustainably on their own initiative after they leave the school.

Reducing carbon footprint with walk to school challenges

Solway’s weekly initiative, Walk or Wheel Wednesday, encourages students to walk or ride to school rather than be driven. The initiative aims to reduce the school’s carbon footprint by cutting down on car journeys.

In 2012, the students participated in the Get2School Cool walking to school challenge run by their local council, the City of Boroondara. Solway Primary won for walking the most distance and saving the most carbon dioxide out of nine primary schools in the area. Solway was awarded a $500 sporting goods voucher that was spent on a class set of pedometers.

Funding sustainability achievements with grants and prizes

Solway Primary School has secured several grants for sustainability projects and won various prizes for its sustainability work.

The parents on the Sustainability Committee have traditionally managed much of this work, but this year Solway is moving towards a more collaborative approach, where the teachers take on more responsibility.

“The money we’ve saved on energy bills and raised through sustainability grants and competitions has meant we’ve been able to do more things around sustainability,” says Rhiannon. “It’s had a roll-on effect.”