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Schools’ energy commitment: It’s not just about power, but ‘caring for the environment’

Ecological innovation: Brisbane’s Mt Maria College principal Glenn McConville shows an energy report into his school’s new climate-controlled music and performing arts building. He’s accompanied by (from left) college stewardship captain Teresa Rampa Dowling, and captain James Orman.

2018. IT was the year a fully electric vehicle had its first test run on Australian roads – here in Queensland. 

And it was the year Brisbane Catholic schools embarked on a pioneering clean-energy project that aims to contribute to a planet-saving “ecological conversion”.

“We’ve made a public commitment to living Laudato Si’ … it’s not just about saving power or generating power, but looking at the way of caring for the environment … for sustainability,” Brisbane Catholic Education communications and marketing manager John Phelan said.

Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, is the title of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical that challenges Catholics to make practical changes to the environment around us.

As the Book of Genesis explains: humans are stewards of God’s creation, charged with cultivating and caring for all creation (Genesis 2:15).

While drivers can now travel about 1800km, from Coolangatta to Cairns, using the latest EV charging technology, BCE is exploring a far-reaching mix of energy-sustainable initiatives in its schools and offices.

There are plans to introduce solar and ground-sourced heat-exchange-assisted heating, cooling and ventilating (GSHE), eco-power and water storage, LED-lighting, insulation and natural shade, and waste management.

At Brisbane’s Mt Maria College – one of eight schools involved in trial initiatives – ground-sourced heat exchange climate control fitted in a new music and performing arts building has proven a success, and a full-scale version will be introduced next year.

Compared to the savings in carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plant, the GSHE system can save the equivalent each year of more than 72,000km driven in a passenger car.

Across Brisbane archdiocese 135 schools and eight BCE offices are now collecting energy consumption data that is helping to plan the best ways to cut power usage and costs.

Eventually, the data will be used to make the most efficient case-by-case combinations of energy use throughout the day.

Collecting energy consumption data was already saving “substantial amounts of money” for a “comparatively small investment”, Mr Phelan said.

“The payoff is that it’s financial, but it’s also about saving the planet, and being stewards of God’s creation,” he said.

“It’s an exemplar of what other schools around Australia might do.”

Eight primary schools and secondary colleges are trialling energy reduction and management plans, with each forming a steering group – in some cases teachers, parents and students – looking at their electricity usage and trying to work out how they can best reduce the amount of energy they are using.

At Mt Maria College, students on the steering group even provided their own innovative solutions to the global issue of climate change.

Earlier this year two senior students James Orman and Alec Parkes travelled to New York to take part in the final of the Spellman High Voltage Clean Tech Competition – an international research and design challenge for 15-18-year-old pre-university students.

The Mt Maria pair presented a solution model for climate change that was placed fourth out of more than 600 entries.

“Our goal is that environmental learning is a feature of the curriculum, but also applies to the way in which our schools and offices run – it’s big picture,” Mr Phelan said.

“As part of our strategic plan, we are committed to building a sustainable future and so that’s very up front for all of our schools and offices.”

The BCE project even goes further, with a key long-term goal of sharing the excess electricity into the community during those periods when schools are in recess.

Big-picture thinkers have even suggested that power generated by Catholic schools could one day feed into charging stations for EV’s travelling Queensland’s highways.

“We would certainly like to be in a position to generate power that goes back into the grid, and to be a net provider of electricity,” Mr Phelan said. “That’s our end goal.

“And in these days when there are a lot of issues around school funding if we are able to bring in some extra money by doing the right thing by the environment, but secondly to help us financially, then that’s win-win.”

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