Our education system deals in big ideas

Our education system deals in big ideas

The future of big ideas matters. As COP27 passes without significant progress, we need major new forms of collective invention to meet the challenge of climate change.

In his recent book “Human Frontiers: The Future of Big Ideas in an Age of Small Thinking”, the writer Michael Bhaskar puts forward the theory that the flow of big, world changing ideas has slowed down. He believes we may be heading for technological stagnation.

Many of you may instead have a more positive outlook – that humanity can build the next generation of global institutions and effectively co-operate to finds new tools; that big breakthroughs will occur again. Economic growth around the world, and the omnipresence of the internet, means that the capacity to learn and work at the frontier of ideas is now global. This has only come to the fore in the last 20 years, and it’s only now that we’re going to start feeling the effects. Our own education sector is certainly starting to feel this effect.

Until fission or Artificial Intelligence can lead us to this new future, we have a set of well-established technologies and approaches such as energy efficiency and solar PV. One of the challenges Bhaskar identifies is that we have already pushed so far. As a species, we made huge transformative leaps in just a century.  President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House in 1979 and at the same time announced a goal of producing 20% of the country’s energy from renewables by 2020. If Carter had won a second term, things may have looked very different now.

The ideas and the technology are not the problems. Constrained budgets and sluggish economic growth are the biggest challenges. Nevertheless, as environmental issues remain on public and political agendas, education institutions must take account of environmental factors, whether as an estate owner, occupier, investor, purchaser or developer.

I will use the rest of this article to try and focus on a single question – how can you pay for energy efficiency and energy generation measures?

The Sustainable Scotland Network has an updated map of funding available to public sector organisations. The Energy Savings Trust has a similar section on its website of currently available grants and loans. The Scottish Central Government Energy Efficiency Grant scheme offers capital grant funding support to enable the delivery of heat decarbonisation and energy efficiency projects across the public sector. Applicants will be able to apply for up to £2 million worth of capital funding per applicant each year. There is no minimum value for applications.

Property owners and occupiers can expect the energy efficiency of buildings to become more closely scrutinised in the coming years. A reassessment post-pandemic of the use and purposing of estates allows for the possibility of longer term savings.

There are a number of existing frameworks that would allow public sector bodies to quickly scale up energy efficiency measures. The Non Domestic Energy Efficiency Framework has been in place since 2016 to support public bodies to kickstart their journeys to net zero

Energy Performance Contracts provide guaranteed energy savings from a private sector partner without upfront capital investment. It minimises risk, improves building performance and provides contractual guarantees on performance. The savings achieved pay for the project.

Briefly setting aside the increase in interest rates, the cost of financing projects was also getting cheaper. Since 2015 the financing costs of solar PV and onshore wind had fallen by 20% and 15% respectively. New renewables are cheaper than new fossil fuel energy. Each time we double deployment of solar the cost falls by 20%. Market forces will continue to compel deployment of renewables.

Capturing and re-using waste heat from industry, date centres or from urban sewage is a potentially cheap form of heating. Schools and universities can provide an excellent base-load for wider district heating projects. Speak to your neighbouring landowners and progressive property developers about renewables projects. Use your in-house technical expertise to see how you can be an early mover in the hydrogen economy.

There will be an estimated 18 million electric vehicles in the UK by 2030, but the infrastructure to charge them needs to quickly catch up. The government has pledged investment to boost the roll-out of the charging network. Private operators will be looking at your existing carparks as a potential tenant or joint venture partner.

Michael Bhaskar’s book concludes, at least in part, that to maintain constant rates of technological process you need to continue to put in more resources. Innovative financing of clean energy R&D will not help any of us this winter, but there are funding and contractual opportunities out there for those actively looking now, and there are longer term cost benefits that can ultimately be achieved.

If you have any questions in relation to the topics raised in this article, please reach out to Martin Whiteford. 

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