Schools left out in county council’s bid to spend millions on green energy suppliers

Essex County Council has committed to spending its multi-million pound electricity budget on purely green energy suppliers.

But it has been decided that schools are no longer included in the council’s energy contracts – sparking a critical response that the county council is avoiding its responsibilities by leaving out schools.

While 66 primary schools expressed an interest in being part of the new contract to purchase energy via the council’s new suppliers, the remaining schools, amounting to around 90, did not.

That left the level of opt in too low in terms of volumes of gas and electricity for schools to be a viable inclusion in the new supply contract.

Those who expressed an interest will be signposted to alternative national frameworks which will potentially provide the schools with greater cost certainty than the council’s proposed arrangements, the county council said.

The council currently buys energy on behalf of schools – including 120 schools for electricity and 80 schools for gas.

Councillor Mike Mackrory, leader of the Lib Dem group, told the county council’s cabinet on December 21: “I am just concerned that for these 66 primary schools the last thing they really want to be worried about is procuring their own energy supply when they should be 100 per cent concentrating on educating children.

“I am sorry to say that yet again it seems this council is abrogating its responsibilities for schools when they have so many other responsibilities to deal with.”

But Councillor Tony Ball, Essex County Council’s cabinet member for education excellence, skills and training said: “We do understand our responsibilities to the schools and we will step up and fulfill them and work with the maintained schools to work out a system for them.

“But it must be remembered that under half of the maintained schools of approximately 150 primary expressed an interest. Therefore the majority didn’t but we will work with them to find a solution.”

The authority’s budgeted 2022/23 spend on electricity is £7.6m across the core estate and infrastructure – this includes around 250 operational buildings including offices, libraries, children’s centres, youth and respite centres, country parks, as well as highways, street lighting and other infrastructure.

The authority says its estate’s large size provides opportunity to leverage its spend on electricity to support its net zero targets whilst improving the authority’s financial resilience through a commitment to source 100 per cent renewable electricity through on-site renewable electricity generation, off-site renewable electricity generation and certified renewable electricity.

This policy does not cover gas, which costs the authority around £800,000 a year. Options for buying renewable gas are limited due to limited generation in the UK and renewable gas comes with a price premium.

Councillor Chris Whitbread, cabinet member for finance, said: “We will for the first time put in a renewable electricity policy that commits us to only using green energy as part of our commitment to reducing our carbon emissions and leading the way on climate action.

“We will do this by taking every opportunity to generate our own green electricity like putting solar panels on the roofs of our buildings.

“But we will also explore options using our purchasing power as an electricity customer to buy our electricity direct from a renewable energy generator such as solar farms and in so doing so encourage more renewable generation to be built.

“The remaining electricity we buy we will ensure is certified green energy.”

A statement to cabinet said: “The new flexible supply contracts will be subject to the same risks and benefits as the current supply contracts.

“Purchases of energy will be made via a trading desk provided by Mitie who will advise on future purchases to assist the Council to make multiple energy purchases taking advantage of the benefits of price changes in the commodity market during the life of the contract.

“This is a strategy of buying “little and often” that enables the spread of risk over several purchases ideally resulting in an overall lower energy price.

“It also enables the council to pursue the strategy for renewable energy and sourcing from off-site renewables which would not be available under a fixed price contract.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter