Thursday, 29 September 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I was contacted by the line Minister, who was unavailable. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O’Donovan, for being here, because the question is on refurbishment and retrofitting. The Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, has good experience in the fine work that the OPW carries out on many of our buildings across the country.
I want to ask about the retrofitting of our schools across the country. Many of us visit and talk in schools. Schools we visit can have varying, different standards of buildings. I visited a school recently in Rathnew, namely, St. Coen’s, which was newly built and is absolutely fantastic. There are high energy-efficiency measures within the building - everything from the taps to the water conservation measures and more. It has water attenuation tanks outside that catch rainwater from the roof and then regenerate back into the building. The roof was wired for solar panels but they did not have them. They asked me to look into that, so I would be delighted to go back to them now to tell them that we are putting free solar panels on schools. That is a bit of good news going back.
However, other schools we visit – the Minister of State knows ones I am talking about – where you go in and there are the badly-fitted windows, the central heating is pumped up to 90 and the heat is all going out through the windows. The heating is blasting out, but yet the children are cold in the classrooms.
I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Education on it, and the response came back about the energy retrofit pathfinder programme, which is a programme to identify and assess schools for retrofitting. I just do not know how a school actually applies for it, how it is assessed or how it gets onto that pathfinder programme. We know the tremendous work that the teachers do in the classroom and the school principals are absolutely up to their eyes, so I do not know if they would have time to sit down and look into how to apply for a retrofit for their schools. It would be good if we could make it easier for those schools to apply for those energy retrofits to get the assessments carried out to see what the best return for them is, for example, new windows, thermostatic controls, lighting controls or something to help them with those huge energy bills, especially where they are dependent on oil heating. It is expensive, wasteful and bad for our environment.
I do not know if the Minister of State has any information on that. However, I would like to be able to go to the schools and tell them about the pathfinder programme that was introduced and is a collaboration between the Department of Education and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. How do school apply for that programme?
At the outset, I want to thank Deputy Matthews for raising this issue. My office had, through the offices of the other Ministers for whom I am deputising, reminded them to tell colleagues if they were not available, so I do not know what happened in respect of the other issue.
I want to thank the Deputy for raising this issue, as it provides me with an opportunity to outline the current position on retrofitting and sustainable energy in school buildings for the Department of Education. The Department is at the forefront of design with respect to sustainable energy in school buildings. This performance has been recognised at both national and international levels.
The National Development Plan 2021-2030, which was published on 4 October, provides capital funding of more than €4 billion for investment in school infrastructure during the period of 2021-2025 and there continues to be a strong climate action dimension in this. The Department of Education’s technical guidance documents set the benchmark for sustainable design in school buildings with a clear focus on energy efficiency. Schools that are designed and built in accordance with the Department’s school technical guidance documents have been receiving A3 building ratings since 2009, with current schools typically achieving up to 20% energy performance and 25% better carbon performance than required by the current building regulations, along with 10% of primary energy provided via photovoltaics and infrastructure provided for electric vehicle charging. All new technologies and approaches are tested to ensure compatibility with school design and operational requirements. Successful and repeated results are then incorporated into the new school designs and refurbishments.
The Department’s policy is supported by a strong research programme with more than 50 research projects at various different stages. In the interest of sustainability, it is critical that renewable applications are properly suited to the schools’ needs, so as to reduce energy costs and carbon and not just apply for the sake of having renewables. It is also critical that we minimise the demand for energy before we invest in renewable energy applications. This has been assisted in previous years with wall and attic insulation programmes and a water conservation programme, which the Deputy referred to.
The Department of Education and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications jointly funded the pathfinder programme, which the Deputy also referred to. That is administered through Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. The pathfinder is a great example of collaboration, ensuring deployment of new design approaches and technologies are introduced in an education environment and an evidenced-based approach. The programme continues to assist the Department of Education to explore options and test various solutions in the school building network. It is paving the way for and informing a much larger national programme for the energy retrofitted schools built prior to 2008, as included in the national development plan, NDP. It is facilitating research on a range of typical retrofit options, which will have to be tried and tested, and is providing valuable development information for a solution-driven delivery strategy, which will be founded on a solid evidence base and proven to be robust and scalable, of renewable solutions within the school sector.
The pathfinder programme has retrofitted 41 schools across the country to date, with work on an additional 15 currently at various stages of design. Each school undergoes a comprehensive assessment to ensure that the measures are suitable for that school and will deliver value both to the school and the environment. The works typically include upgrades to the building's fabric, including walls, roof, doors, windows, airtightness improvements, lighting, heating and other renewable technologies. As part of the cost-of-living measures to be enacted this year, €90 million is being provided in a once-off additional funding to support increased running costs for primary and post-primary in the free education scheme in dealing with the challenges that they face due to high energy costs. This will be paid at a rate of 40% of schools’ basic and enhanced rates of capitation.
I completely agree that the first step should be energy reduction. That is what we should be pursuing. It is encouraging to hear that 41 schools had pathfinder works carried out and another 15 are under assessment. That is kind of what my question is about. How does a school apply for or get on the radar of the Department for an assessment to be carried out?
I visited a school in Wicklow town recently. It was a school that had two buildings. One was the original 1955 block with high ceilings and high windows. It was the type of classic, old Irish national school building. I went in to have a look at it and I could see very simple measures that could be introduced there, for example, interior wall insulation, rather than exterior, because it is a classic looking building and you do not want to take away from that classic look. There were very simple measures that could be carried out that would reduce the heating costs in that school. If we can reduce the heating bills for the school, it will reduce the pressure on principals who want to keep the schools warm and comfortable for children and staff. The bills roll in and that money could be better spent on other provisions in the class. I have no doubt that many principals would have many other things to spend the money on rather than high energy bills.
Particularly, in relation to St. Patrick’s school in Wicklow town, I would appreciate if the Minister of State could relay to the Minister for me that it is a school that would be very suitable for that pathfinder programme. Generally, how does a school apply? Does it go on the SEAI website like a residential or business user would? Is there a direct line to the Department where you can tell it the school is freezing, the bills are huge or the windows are drafty and ask to be put on the pathfinder programme? If the Minister could come back to me at a later stage, I would very much appreciate that.
I will ask the Department of Education, through the office of the Minister, Deputy Foley, to respond to the Deputy directly.
On the retrofitting of older buildings, Deputy Matthew’s commented that the OPW is steeped in this. Every old building presents its own challenges. In many cases the buildings the Deputy referred to are listed buildings. This includes primary and post-primary schools, that are either listed on the city and county development plans or, in some cases, are protected structures. That creates a difficulty as well for the board of management in terms of what can be done on the external elevations and windows. We have to be practical as well in relation to making sure that these buildings are comfortable. This is where often there is a clash in the prioritisation of needs.
We all have in our constituencies old buildings where children are trying to be educated. These buildings are on the list of protected structures or somebody's list of protected structures. Unfortunately, however, the comfort and needs of the children, teaching staff and support staff often fall far down the pecking order. Where there is a mass concrete building, the difficulties associated with attaching external or internal insulation must be borne in mind. If it is a stone building, the stone has to be able to breathe. The lime has to be able to breathe. This comes with a lot of complications, and these are not easily rectifiable.
We encounter these problems in the Office of Public Works when dealing with older buildings, particularly given the fact that a building will actually tell one what it is and is not capable of taking by way of modern infrastructure placed upon it. Therefore, it is not easy, particularly where buildings built before 2008 are concerned. Many of these were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and many of us were educated in them. To be quite honest about it, there is probably a bigger question to be asked regarding whether it is sustainable to try to insulate a building of the scale, nature and age that I describe instead of constructing a replacement one, for instance.