For a small school, they have big dreams of saving the planet from climate change

The Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Bangladesh Islamia School in Abu Dhabi is a small school with the big dream of saving the planet.

Principal Mir Hasan and pupils, from left, Asthma Amree, 12, Zarin Isra, 13, Mohammed Nur, 18, and Fahad Bashar, 17, with the solar panels that now power all of the school’s lighting, computers and fans. Sammy Dallal / The National
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It is a small school with the big dream of saving the planet. The corridors of the 33-year-old Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Bangladesh Islamia School may be neither pretty nor contemporary, but the rows of solar panels on its roof are both.

The panels were funded by Masdar’s Zayed Future Energy Prize, after the school won $100,000 (Dh367,300) for a proposal to reduce its energy consumption by 40 per cent. The prize is reward for the work of the Abu Dhabi school’s eco-club, a team of staff and students dedicated to cutting the school’s carbon footprint

No one at the school ever imagined it would win so much money.

“The thing is, we never thought of the prize, or money,” says Mir Anisul Hasan, the principal.

“We work for a greater call. Our mission and objective is to be in touch with the greater issues of the environment, which affect the very existence of human beings.”

Two years ago, the school, tucked away in Al Zahra, joined the sustainable schools initiative run by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi. It cut energy consumption by 15 per cent by switching to CFL low-energy light bulbs and planting grass and trees irrigated with reused water.

Later that year came a gold award for best managers of energy and a silver award for best managers of land. At the ceremony, Masdar invited the school to enter its Zayed Future Energy Prize competition; the school’s entry was the award-winning solar-panel project, backed up by an audit conducted by pupils.

Dh150,000 of the prize money has already been spent installing solar panels that produce between 64kWh and 70kWh a day. They power all the schools lights, fans and computers, which collectively consume 64kWh. The 48 panels run for 12 hours a day and reduce the school’s energy consumption by a further 15 per cent.

The panels also use groundbreaking technology, according to Khurram Nawab, the inventor of the Solar PV platforms and managing director of Mulk Enpar Renewable Energy. The platforms track the sun’s movement, with special mirrors to maximise light exposure.

Mr Nawab says these two innovations boost energy production by 53 per cent. “The students are very fortunate to have a system on their roof where they can learn.

“Not many schools in Abu Dhabi have this. And in Abu Dhabi, this is the first time we’ve installed this system on a rooftop. I’m sure one of the students will become one of the best renewable-energy engineers.”

The school’s original second-stage plan was to invest in batteries to store unused solar energy. This was scrapped in favour of reducing the school’s need for air conditioning, its largest energy drain, through passive cooling. It is experimenting with the principles behind traditional Arab architecture – historic, energy-free methods of lowering temperatures.

Mr Hasan insists his guests have coffee, delivered in an age-worn mug. He is even more adamant about the snacks. Speaking with increasing conviction, he says: “We are doing something – small or big, it doesn’t matter. Our goal is very high. A quest for a new beginning – a greater and better purpose. Our students are motivated, parents are motivated and we are going to have a drive to motivate the community also.”

The eco-club was pioneered by Mr Hasan and when he became principal he handed over the reins to Anita Saul, an English teacher. Ms Saul is a living legend to her students; a well of inspiration and good conscience. Ask any student involved in the eco-club for the source of their inspiration and the answer is always an enthusiastic smile and two words: Anita Saul.

She answers questions with an enthusiastic “yes, yes, yes” uttered in quick succession, and never seems to stop smiling. “Yes, yes, yes. I have been the eco-club co-ordinator for some years now. I think there are about 100 to 120 schools around Abu Dhabi who have registered as sustainable schools. We are one among them.”

The school has always struggled to make ends meet. It still charges only Dh350 a month for high-school pupils and Dh600 a month for college students. With only about 600 students, income is slim. Becoming more energy-efficient makes the school not only more environmentally sustainable, but financially too.

“Our students are from very, very low social strata. Some are OK but most of them are below the average economic level. They’re struggling, in fact. So this is a huge opening for them, their brilliance here is an opportunity,” Mr Hasan says. “When we applied we never thought we would get it because compared to so many better, giant schools, this is a very ordinary school. But we went ahead; we worked hard to apply, took it very seriously and it has transformed our school. And our attitudes too.”

Being from a country that “could one day be totally under water”, the school’s Bangladeshi students are more than aware of the potential devastation climate change could wreak on the planet. Teams of eco-club students carry out air, land, water, waste and energy audits using manuals prepared by the environment agency. Staff and pupils often work through breaks, and after school. Ms Saul says she always tells pupils not to underestimate themselves.

“Before, they were feeling somewhat inferior, an isolationist feeling,” she says. “Now, many have already charted out their future careers. So even though it’s only 600 students, I feel they’re very happy. Whatever opportunities they couldn’t get otherwise, this has opened up things. They feel every one of them can make a difference – it is hope and confidence this prize has given them, more than the material benefits.”

Ms Saul’s passion stems from the portrayal of nature in literature, and watching the next generation grow from boys and girls into eco-warriors.

“They all know about Sheikh Zayed’s vision, the prize itself is named after him. Every day they even catch the teachers and ask if they’ve switched off the lights, if they’re using plastic bottles. We’ve seen them grow into individuals with different personalities, with a great awareness of sustainability and responsibility.” She laughs, “and we’ve trapped the great ones to go into this field”.

She points to a quiet boy, Fahad Bashar, 17, who wants to become a renewable-energy engineer. Fahad is one of the eco-club’s older members and mentors children as young as 12. He says: “Anita Saul inspired us to join the team. We’re inspired by her dedication and her hard work. She does so much for the school and the students. But we got a lot of inspiration from the Environment Agency’s book too.

“I joined when I was 15. Now we also have a lot of junior students. We follow the manual step by step and we create awareness in the school. We’ve told the junior classes to do auditing and now we have installed the solar panels, we have even more responsibilities. Every day, we monitor the solar panels, and check the production and consumption.”

Mohammed Jared Nur, 18, has also been a member for two years. Mohammed, however, wants to study aeronautical engineering, not renewable energy.

“I just want to contribute to the environment and support society. I was in land auditing before, we made a garden where there was only sand before, it was desert. We measured and calculated the green and desert areas in our field and submitted it to our teachers.”

Beena Shaji, a science teacher and club member, says the school prepares students to overcome future energy crises.

“We explain that later it’ll affect them most. Science works with environmental sustainability – they’re parallel to each other. When students study it, they always become interested and get involved. My duty is to increase student awareness about the future and encourage them, because we need renewable energy. Petrol and all this is going to decrease.”

The school introduces the concepts of renewable energy and climate change to children as young as four. Rekha Thushar, a kindergarten teacher, says the students learn more and more every year.

“If we’re giving the foundation stone when they’re young, they will continue. Normally we start with segregation of waste and make them understand they have to love nature – small things. At home they conserve too, switching off the light when they go out and other small measures. Now they’re proud because they know we’re getting the energy from the Sun.”

The most confident and articulate student is a bespectacled 13-year-old girl with pigtails, Zarin Tusnim Isra. “We’re doing awareness campaigns too. We went to Abu Dhabi cooperative and other places like that. I want to be an environmental scientist because the Earth needs it. Our environment is being polluted gradually because of too much release of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. And that’s why we need innovations, new technologies.

“When we produce too much energy, we emit a lot of carbon dioxide – so we need to come up with new ideas, like solar panels.”