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Decarbonising Learning – How HNES is supporting the education sector

9th Apr, 2024

Education can change the world and is the starting point for some of the world’s best innovators, leaders, reformers and creators. The UK’s educational institutions are uniquely placed to harness knowledge, influence the world to make a difference, and nurture the future generation of climate experts. Indeed, it was professors from University College London who, most recently, have been developing a trailblazing solution to save the Arctic’s sea-ice from rising temperatures due to global warming1.

However, as education shapes the next generation of sustainable pioneers, how can we ensure that the sector is practicing what it preaches?

The built environment accounts for 19% of the UK’s emission levels, and domestic energy consumption is a huge barrier to the UK realising its Net Zero ambitions2. Research from the University of Leeds, alongside 536 other institutions, has found that universities and colleges alone emitted more than 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent into the environment in 2020/213. This represented around 2.3% of the UK’s overall carbon footprint. Students must observe that the very institutions educating them on the dangers of climate change and contributions from human behaviour are doing their part to mitigate their own carbon footprint.

Cutting energy bills and carbon emissions in the public and higher education sectors was seen as particularly important by the UK Government, after financial benchmarking revealed that in 2019 schools alone were spending around £630 million each year on energy4. Since then, energy bills have soared, alongside the rising cost of living. As schools and universities increasingly feel the squeeze, the sector needs further support to decarbonise buildings and increase energy efficiency levels.

Heating consumption is a large cost for energy managers across educational facilities. Some of these estates will be connected to a district or communal heating system which distribute heat and cooling from a central source. The technology is a vital aspect of the UK’s transition to Net Zero, often providing the lowest cost, most efficient option for large spaces and high-density areas.

Through its Heat Network Transformation Programme (HNTP), the Government has recognised the role heat networks have to play in the energy transition and has already invested over half a billion pounds to help expand the sector. Gemserv is playing a large role in helping to deliver the HNTP and is the appointed delivery partner to deliver the Heat Network Efficiency Scheme (HNES), just one of the schemes that form part of the programme.

HNES realises that, whilst the Government must continue to support the creation of low and zero carbon heat networks, older networks across the country may not be operating at their optimum efficiency levels and cannot be forgotten. Ensuring that the UK’s existing heat network infrastructure is reliable, cost-effective and keeping occupiers warm and comfortable is crucial to build trust in the technology. HNES has already supported numerous educational institutions to increase the efficiency of their heat networks and has the potential to provide significant cost and energy savings to institutions connected to these heating schemes.

Throughout Rounds 1-4, HNES has funded both capital infrastructure improvements and optimisation studies for existing heat networks connected to the Universities of Plymouth, Leicester and Liverpool, Lancaster University, and the Royal Agricultural University5. The University of Wales Trinity St Davids has also received capital funding to improve the efficiency of their heat network. Alongside this, HNES has supported heat networks connected to teaching hospitals across the country, creating an energy efficient space to train future and current health professionals across the NHS.

So far, with the support from HNES, heat networks across the country will save over 97,000 tonnes of CO2e per year, benefitting 32,700 residents, students, teachers, and private and public sector workers. Smaller efficiency improvements to existing networks, alongside new low carbon infrastructure is crucial to ensure an effective energy transition that benefits everyone and shows that Net Zero does not mean higher bills.


[1] Climate change: The ‘insane’ plan to save the Arctic’s sea-ice – BBC News
[2] The real carbon footprint of universities | Times Higher Education (THE)
[3] Analysis reveals scale of tertiary education’s carbon emissions – Priestley Centre for Climate Futures (
[4] Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems – GOV.UK (
[5] Heat Network Efficiency Scheme HNES | Gemserv Delivery Partner

This article was first published in the April edition of the Energy Manager Digital Magazine.

Heat Network Efficiency Scheme (HNES)

The Government’s Heat Network Efficiency Scheme (HNES) supports performance improvements.

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Industrial Heating Pipe Image - Heat Network Efficiency Scheme (HNES)


Michael Williams

Content Developer

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