Integral Group is rewriting the rules for sustainable buildings and precincts around the globe. Schools are the perfect environment to implement sustainable design solutions as they are an important part of any community and learning environments for the next generation.

In this Integral Insight, Associate Principal Hugh Wilson answers some key questions asked by school and government groups about electrification when designing new school buildings or retrofitting classroom spaces.

Why should we use electrification in our buildings? Shouldn’t we be using less electricity, not more?
Yes, and no. Schools should target energy efficiency at every opportunity and be mindful of their greenhouse gas emissions. The grid in some areas may still have a higher emissions coefficient than natural gas, but these are reducing as more renewables make their way into the grid.

In designing new buildings, schools should not lock themselves into fossil fuel consumption for the life of the equipment (typically 25 years) – when the grid is heading towards becoming carbon neutral in the future.

Can we centralize the control of cooling and heating systems?
There is a whole range of opportunities to centralize the whole system or centralize the control of local systems. Schools can leverage efficiency through a localized plant (a unit in each classroom) and switch systems off if the room is not in use or using natural ventilation when suitable.

This requires local control of units, managed by teachers, but can be overlaid with safeguards such as a master clock timer and temperature set points so that energy is not wasted through user error.

Can a whole school be powered by solar energy?
It is possible to have a solar system equal to or greater than the electrical demand of the school – however in the absence of batteries which are still expensive, the electrical infrastructure is still required to power the school during inclement weather and evening events.

Policy differs across different regions, but in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, the expected annual energy consumption of retrofitted air conditioning units is offset with a solar installation.

This could easily be expanded to include the entire electrical consumption of the school – in which case – yes, over an average year, the school would generate the same amount of power as it consumes – and effectively be fully solar-powered. The key limitation of this is the 99kW limit on small-scale solar installations.

How would this impact/benefit rural schools?
The incoming electrical supply to a school needs to have the capacity to run the entire school without factoring in any benefits of renewable energy, like solar. In our experience, regional schools generally require electrical infrastructure upgrades to support additions like air conditioning or electrified heating. This is due to reliability issues with the supply.

A future where this perception is challenged is exciting – it is entirely possible to have load management systems to switch air conditioning off if the solar system is not outputting enough power.

Can schools install solar panels and avoid upgrading the entire electrical infrastructure?
Many existing and emerging technologies support schools achieving this in the future, but the current policies across Australia require an uninterrupted and consistent power supply for the running of school facilities. Batteries, which are expensive now, might be a more affordable option for some schools, particularly regional ones when compared with the cost of upgrading an entire grid.

Unfortunately, until we can harness the power of renewable energy across the entire day, solar panels are not a viable alternative for a complete electrical infrastructure upgrade.

Is changing to an electric system expensive?
Upgrading a school from the classic unflued gas heaters (the standard in many Australian schools) requires a full HVAC installation, so yes, it can be expensive. However, there are other benefits.

Installing a reverse-cycle electrical system provides heating and cooling to classrooms while removing the risks of carbon monoxide generated from unflued gas heaters, and improve ventilation at the same time.

Can electrification be completed without disrupting operations?
Installation of electrical air conditioning into existing schools is usually undertaken over holiday periods. It is quite possible to stage the installation to eliminate any impact on teaching time.

Have another question about school electrification? Get in touch with Hugh Wilson here.