SOLAR projects powering dozens of Queensland Catholic schools have so impressed Vatican officials that they believe the projects could be duplicated across the globe offering massive power savings, as well as demonstrating the Church’s environmental commitment.
All 31 schools in the Diocese of Townsville have now switched to power from solar panels as part of a pioneering environmental project, reducing annual power bills by $250,000.
The project demonstrates how Church organisations in Australia can be part of a planet-wide movement in response to Pope Francis’ year-old encyclical Laudato Si’ – On Care for Our Common Home.
The project was recently showcased to top Church officials, including Cardinal George Pell, who oversees Holy See finances.
A meeting in Rome was brokered by former Deputy Prime Minister and former Australian Ambassador to the Holy See Tim Fischer.
Mr Fischer is now patron for the company Eco Community, which has designed the Townsville project.
“The Townsville template represents the keys to energy heaven and full marks to both the Catholic Education Office of Townsville and Eco Community,” Mr Fischer said.
During a high-level meeting in Vatican City, Mr Fischer said the company director Martin Oldfield and the Townsville Catholic Education executive director Dr Cathy Day were able to demonstrate in real-time on a laptop how the system worked at one Queensland school.
“To watch in real-time the energy usage of a Catholic school in Charters Towers, while sitting in a board room in Rome – their energy pattern for the last seven days was very impressive,” Mr Fischer said.
“This exemplar of the Townsville template is starting to be recognised worldwide including the narrow streets leading from the Tiber to the Vatican.
“It certainly lit up many eyes at a very senior level amongst those who have dealt with Catholic school networks in the past.
“It should mean much vital savings in the budgets of the various Catholic education systems and in each diocese here in Australia. But also in most OECD countries.”
The savings for Catholic schools are impressive. Mr Oldfield said the Townsville solar template could be rolled out in every school in every diocese in Australia.
“The savings would be $1.4 billion in operating costs to Catholic education in the next 25 years,” the Sydney-based entrepreneur said.
“The important thing is that we can prove these figures, and absolutely smash the current costs.
“It will mean that money now spent on power bills can be put back into teaching.
“This is the most significant carbon-saving project that Catholic Education will ever see.”
Mr Oldfield, a Jesuit-educated entrepreneur, who formed his company with brother, Justin, said the most pleasing aspect of the Townsville project was reducing the carbon footprint.
“This is Laudato Si’ in action,” he said.
The project is still in the first stage – with all 31 schools in Townsville diocese using solar panels to generate power, an impact equivalent to taking two family-sized cars off the road for each student.
“That’s 26,000 cars off the road,” Mr Oldfield said. “When the project is fully operational it will be equivalent to taking 80,000 cars off the road.”
Dr Day said the project had broad implications of environmental awareness for children in those schools.
“We went along with a proposal that came from Martin Oldfield and the Eco Community for a systemic rolling out of solar power to our schools, to reduce greenhouse gases and to use efficiently resources and to make a statement to students that we cared beyond the curriculum,” she said.
“What we’ve done is invest about six million dollars – with some support from the Australian Government in subsidies – to put a solar panel project in every one of our schools.”
Townsville’s learning, teaching and Catholic identity director Ernie Christie said the switch over to solar panels was decided three years ago.
“All our schools and our office now have solar, and half have moved to the second stage, which is to have 15 schools entirely using solar power, no other power,” he said.
“We’re saving thousands of dollars each bill now. It is paying for itself before its time, especially with electricity prices spiralling.”
Fluorescent lights are also being systematically replaced with LED lights which are highly energy efficient.
Mr Christie said the annual saving across all 31 schools was $231,062 up 18 per cent on predicted savings.
“The Pope’s Laudato Si’ is a beautiful document and we have to be stewards for the future. We are doing that, and we would like that to be a global message,” he said.
“But it’s not jut about being green; it’s a good business model. Our principals can see on their budget sheets just how much they are saving.”
Stage 3 of the Townsville project will introduce battery storage, which will allow schools to go “off-the-grid” for their power.
“So when schools are not being used, the energy can be stored,” Mr Christie said. “Australian schools have summer holidays when they are not being used and so they can store quite a bit.
“With improvements in technology the battery capacity will increase; the ballgame will change totally again.
“Ultimately it would be great if all our schools were off-the-grid. It might seem pie in the sky now but it may seem sensible in the future.”
Cairns diocese has started introducing the Townsville template, and Darwin diocese has the template on the drawing board.
All of these dioceses experience harsh, tropical conditions and are a test of whether the equipment and materials will stand up to cyclones and extreme temperatures.
Eco Community is playing a co-ordinating and consultancy role in each of the projects focusing on the best way to save energy, using the latest technology and monitoring power usage.
Mr Oldfield is buoyed by his meeting with Church officials and is now ready to promote the Townsville template to dioceses across Australia and the world.
“They were strongly interested in seeing it expanded in Australia and there is a global application for sure,” he said.
“I am looking at Italy, France, in Argentina and Chile and parts of the United States, possibly California.”
By Mark Bowling