A School’s Energy Transformation

I rolled into the school driveway feeling apprehensive. Groups of high school students sitting on the lawn were giving me odd looks. This was only the second day of my bicycle journey, but already I was grubby and smelly from life on the road and probably looked like a vagabond. It didn’t help that the high-vis vest I was wearing was covered in smears of black grease from when it had fallen onto my bike chain earlier.

I tried to make myself more presentable before heading in to the front reception of Huonville High School, but the receptionist still seemed unsure whether to sign me in or shoo me from the building.

I was eventually welcomed by an affable man in shorts and a t-shirt: Jason Lunden, the head of science at the school. He led me through the school grounds, talking as we walked. Being a small rural school in a low socioeconomic area, apparently it can be tough motivating the students here. As if to emphasise this point, he stops to round up a truent student wandering the halls during class time.

Jason leads me in to a stand-alone classroom called the Zayed Energy Hub, where we sit to chat. This is what all the fuss is about. Historically it used to be a dentist’s treatment room and office. Now it looks like a tired old building with cracks in the walls.

Backtrack a few years. A passionate and determined teacher at the school, Nel Schmidt, stumbled upon some information about a little-known prize awarded to schools by the United Arab Emirates. Called the Global High Schools Zayed Future Energy Prize, it was set up by the UAE as a tribute to the legacy of their late founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nathan, to drive sustainability solutions in schools. An annual award of US$100,000 was up for grabs.

Nel and a team of students, led by 15 year old Toby Thorpe, put in an application. They made it to the finals, and set off to Abu Dhabi for the award ceremony. The winners would be selected by a jury of international experts chaired by HE Olafur Ragnar Grimson, President of the Republic of Iceland.

Up until then Toby had been in it only half-heartedly. Then suddenly being on the world stage meeting students from around the globe, as well as world leaders in sustainability, something awoke in him. But they didn’t win.

Nel, Toby and the team returned home determined to try again. They took the opportunity to learn from the other finalists and studied the winning school’s design plans. The following year they made it into the finals again with a revised design proposal, and won. US$100,000 was theirs to retrofit their old school building and turn it into a sustainable energy hub.

They installed a large array of solar panels (125 in total), an energy monitoring system, a wood pellet heater and a pedal-powered cinema with charging stations. A weather monitoring station on the roof is collecting data in preparation for installing a small wind turbine and a rainwater collection system. They’ve also been replacing the old bank of windows on the north-west wall with a mix of insulated wall panels and more energy efficient double-glazed windows.

And apparently there are more ideas in the pipeline. A whiteboard in the corner is covered in ideas and plans, including LED lights, a bio-digester, and numerous community events they want to hold. The ultimate goal is to turn the building in to a 6 star energy efficient research centre and offer a pilot energy assessment course for year 11 and 12 students.

I’m in search of good-news-stories, but Jason seems determined to paint this as a bad-news-story: the project has slowed and little progress has been made lately; key driving personalities, such as Nel and Toby, have graduated or moved to part-time, and new students have had to take the helm; and Jason is unsure of what this building means for the classes he teaches.

But looking around the classroom, I can see that an incredible amount of work has already been done. Considering it’s being done by young students at a small rural school, and dealing with public school bureaucracy and red tape, it’s remarkable what they’ve achieved. And I suspect the slowdown is partly due to the inevitable lull that happens over the summer break.

Later I chat on the phone with Nel Schmidt, who unfortunately was away and unable to meet with me in Huonville. She tells me about the numerous events that the student team have held, including a Fix-It Day, an astronomy night, and a science and technology expo. They’ve also set up a recycling program at the school, including for e-waste, where before there was none. Nel’s enthusiasm is contagious, and she’s clearly a driving force behind many of the projects.

She says that winning the Zayed prize gave them lots of media and provided leverage to get other grants and donations, including from TasNetworks and Greening Australia. Each of the double-glazed windows for the building have been donated by local businesses. They raised $50,000 to send a cohort of students to the UN Climate Summit’s Council of Youth in Poland.

And then there’s the high school student Toby, who came from a humble and conservative background and who is now a young climate activist regularly in the media. He’s currently doing a research project looking at what leads people to become activists.

I think back to when I was a timid student and realise that even the task of getting solar panels installed would have been a major challenge for me. I wish we had the opportunity to do these sorts of projects when I was in school.

And as I look again at the cracks in the classroom’s walls, another thought occurs to me. That this is perhaps the ultimate success of the project: the students having to figure this all out themselves, learning as they go and gradually making progress — slowly but surely.

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A huge thank you to Jason Lunden for taking the time to show me around the school, and for Nel Schmidt and Toby Thorpe for chatting with me about the project.