Startup charity Energy Sparks has been working with schools to save on their energy bills and reduce their carbon emissions. The Open Data Institute (ODI)'s former Community Engagement Manager Marina Peneva talks to the charity about how it went from being a prototype at a hackathon event, to being funded by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and OVO Foundation. When talking about impact through data, it's easy to focus on technology. But impact is powered – and felt – by people, and this is also true for data. In order to create impact, we need to connect the right data with the right people, often with the help of the right tools. This has become especially visible in our work with the public sector, where we have created tools to help innovative, data-enabled services go beyond the early stages of prototypes and pilots into sustainability and scaling. But tools can only go so far, and we wanted to share the story of Energy Sparks, a charity based in Bath but working across Britain that has sustained itself through several rounds of funding and scaling by putting people front and centre: users, service providers, facilitators, and the greater community.
It all started ten years ago, long before Energy Sparks itself even became an idea, with founder and schools energy analyst Philip Haile retiring from his career in investment banking
It all started ten years ago, long before Energy Sparks itself even became an idea, with founder and schools energy analyst Philip Haile retiring from his career in investment banking. Philip had always been very interested in ecological issues, and decided to focus his newfound free time and energy on helping to make Bath greener. Working with local sustainability charity Transition Bath, he began providing local schools with energy audits supported by analysis of the school’s smart meter data. Philip discovered that a Bath school had the heat turned on 24/7, 365 days of the year. ‘When we got involved, there was immediately a 65% reduction in their gas consumption,’ says Philip. This energy waste had been going on for at least the past 3 years, and only became clear through analysis of their smart meter data. With the help of a hackathon organised by Bath Hacked (with ODI's own Leigh Dodds on board), Philip developed a prototype that was the bare bones of what the Energy Sparks website is today: a couple of charts, a scoreboarding system, a competition mechanism between schools, and cleaned up publicly available data. And with the help of a small starting grant from the ODI in September 2017, Energy Sparks rolled out its services to 11 schools in the Bath area.
Then, in early 2018, having developed proof of concept, Energy Sparks was awarded a two-year contract by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy through their flagship Non-Domestic Smart Energy Management Innovation Competition. This enabled Energy Sparks to significantly develop its tool and support programme, carry out in-school testing and evaluation, and roll out the programme across the UK. The charity is now working with 75 schools, from Somerset to the Highlands of Scotland, with a further 80 schools set to join over the next few months. Participating schools are starting to make significant progress in saving energy, seeing reductions of up to 26% for electricity and 36% for gas. You can see some more impressive savings statistics in Energy Sparks’ case studies, but what may be most impressive is how it achieves impact – and how deep and far-reaching it is. It brings together pupils and school staff, local authorities, and the greater community in ways that go far beyond saving pounds.
Pester power and beyond
Initially, Philip felt that focusing on energy savings in schools would be ‘a very efficient way of a voluntary organisation delivering carbon emission reductions in Bath... you go to a school, which is a huge consumer, you knock 10% off their energy bill and you're removing several houses' worth of energy consumption’. But as Energy Sparks developed, the impact grew beyond this original idea.
Energy Sparks needed to start from student engagement
Energy is just a small portion of a school's annual budget, and in order to create energy savings impact at a school level, Energy Sparks needed to start from student engagement. When speaking to both schools and local authorities, the Energy Sparks team has asked ‘what makes this a high priority, and people say – it's all about the students.’ Energy Sparks is a ‘child-focused environmental project’ in two important ways: it plays to students' strengths, and in turn uses student engagement to create impact across the school. Most people probably don't think of children as natural data users, but as Energy Sparks’ Programme Co-ordinator and Education Support Officer Paula Malone points out, ‘graphs are brilliant because they tell a really clear story,’ and Energy Sparks plays on this strength. It presents all its data in clear visualisations, with school-specific features such as 'out of hours' energy use marked in a different colour.
Energy Sparks uses analysis of smart meter data to highlight what each school might want to focus on
On top of that, it has lots of resources that kids can jump straight into without much help from adults. Energy Sparks uses analysis of smart meter data to highlight what each school might want to focus on, provides activity recommendations based on data alerts, and automatically embeds relevant charts into activities. At Freshford Church school, near Bath, this structure enabled pupils to lead an initiative that is saving energy, reducing CO2 emissions, and will save the school thousands of pounds. At the start of a new school year, pupils noticed a drop over the summer holidays in the Energy Sparks chart displaying ‘baseload’ electricity. After some further investigation, they discovered that the drop was the result of the kitchen staff turning off the fridges and freezers over the holidays. They then looked into the efficiency of the school freezers by borrowing some appliance monitors from Energy Sparks to record each freezer's energy use, and found that one of the freezers was very inefficient. The pupils explained their discovery in a letter to the head teacher and school business manager, and successfully convinced the school management to replace the freezer. In addition to the environmental benefits, this move could save the school around £7,400 over 10 years – enough to buy 1,500 library books!
Pester power works well for environmental things as well as for toys
The Energy Sparks team realised that some of the bigger savings that the schools can make are not directly within the power of students, but student pressure can cause the adults to make the big changes that are needed. In Paula's words: ‘Pester power works well for environmental things as well as for toys.’ But adults' engagement with Energy Sparks goes beyond pester power. While it is usually the children who become involved first, the effects can spread, leading to what Energy Sparks CEO Claudia Towner referred to as ‘the increasing sense of the whole school community engaging with creating a greener, low carbon school.’
One thing that enables Energy Sparks to create the impact it does is a focus on targeted action – and this comes with a big bonus. Climate change is a topic that children are becoming increasingly aware of. Finding a way to teach them about it without provoking or increasing anxiety is a challenge – one that Energy Sparks has taken up.
Climate change is a topic that children are becoming increasingly aware of. Finding a way to teach them about it without provoking or increasing anxiety is a challenge
Paula is a primary school teacher with a long history of engagement with environmental issues in and out of the classroom, and she has found that the key to sidestepping anxiety is following up ‘the bad news’ with an opportunity for action. ‘I think action is key. And Energy Sparks is action, it's not just learning about something. It's learning about it so that you can change your school.’
Paula believes that schools have a moral obligation to be leading behaviour change in society
But the impact spreads even further. In Paula's view, environmental education is ‘the best learning they can do.’ Paula believes that schools have a moral obligation to be leading behaviour change in society, and ‘If we can get all the children in schools to be energy efficient - they're taking it home. And that's where societal change happens.’
Plans for the future
In July 2020, Energy Sparks secured a three-year funding contract from OVO Foundation. This new funding will be used to provide ongoing core operational support for Energy Sparks’ online school energy management tool and activity programme, allowing the charity to roll out to 350 schools across the UK. Over the next three years, Energy Sparks aims to help these schools avoid 6,000 tonnes of CO2, and save £1.9m in energy costs. ‘I think we're very much on point in terms of subject, with education, climate change, energy reduction, carbon emission reduction... So we're in a good place. I think we've been at the right place at the right time just by accident,’ says Philip. While some luck was certainly involved, the Energy Sparks team have been navigating that luck with great skill and dedication, and the future is looking bright.
If your local authority has half-hourly schools’ energy data, contact Energy Sparks’ CEO Claudia Towner on [email protected] to discuss how you can work with the programme to support your schools and their pupils to take measurable action to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.