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More New Zealand industries should work with schools and use their expertise to help young people face the challenges of a fast-evolving world.

Marc England, chief executive of Genesis Energy, says industry has a social responsibility to encourage “imagination and curiosity” among New Zealand’s young minds – especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and should be using their expertise to do so.

He says it is “in our interest and critical to New Zealand’s future for business to invest some time and resources to support education.”

Genesis has been running a programme called School-gen through New Zealand primary, intermediate and secondary schools since 2007 aiming to bring solar energy and energy efficiency to life for students – and is an example of the kind of help he means.

England says: “It is the only programme of its type which combines technology with education about how energy is produced and consumed. Young people are our future employees, leaders and decision makers and it is important they understand the role renewable energy will play in their future energy mix.

“We have expertise in this area and I believe it is our obligation to use this to help educate young people; it does give them the chance to cultivate environmentally aware thinking and behaviour as well as technical knowledge.”

England says the concept could be applied by other industries as well: “Children would be better off if other sectors did the same in their areas of expertise.”

Such moves would help make a whole range of technologies and developments more relevant to schools – and those entering the workplace.

England says it is important to “energise New Zealand’s young minds” because the energy industry, like many others, is evolving so fast that up to 60 per cent of children in schools today will eventually have jobs that don’t yet exist.

He says it is vital for New Zealand to be at the forefront of these changes and not allow other countries to forge ahead in the technology race – and believes industry in general has a social responsibility in this regard.

Change in England’s industry is being driven by technological developments in solar power, solar batteries and digital capabilities while customer expectations are changing with increasing demands for better and more personalised service.

“We’re moving from a 100-year-old business model as an energy supplier to an era where technology allows local production and home storage of energy as well as far more insight on what is driving consumption and how individual behaviour can make a difference,” he says. “We now act more as energy managers.”

School-gen has achieved some spectacular results in the past 10 years. Over 90 schools throughout the country take part in the programme through which they are supplied with solar panels allowing them to generate a portion of their electricity, with live data demonstrating in real-time what is going on.

Since beginning in 2007, the programme has recorded more than 1733 MWh (megawatt-hours) of solar energy generation, enough to run 247 houses for a year, drive a Tesla S electric car from Cape Reinga to Bluff and return 2430 times or charge more than 43 million chromebooks.

In the 12 months to June, the schools generated 489 MWh of electricity, equivalent to powering the entire country for nearly five minutes.

School-gen includes an interactive website, curriculum-linked teaching resources to allow schools to explore electricity generation, energy efficiency, renewable energy and climate change, specialised environmental educators to help schools – and instructions on how to make a solar oven out of a pizza box.

England says the company is now planning to “turbo-charge” the programme to reflect changes in the industry and is aiming to bring in more schools and to develop more relevant and digital teaching resources.

“Ultimately, we would like to be working with hundreds of schools,” he says. “So we are looking at creating more learning modules – which can be downloaded online – and self-help curriculum resources.

“We have found by talking and interacting with students, we have a real chance to cultivate environmentally-aware thinking and behaviour not just theirs, but that of the people around them like their teachers, parents and friends.”

“It is important they understand the opportunities renewable energy and efficient smart digital technologies will have in their future,” England says. “School-gen gives us the opportunity to play a role to help educate and engage with them about the choices they have for energy use and how it affects their carbon footprint.

“It is a good example of how education is moving away from a text-book approach to also providing practical educational material.”

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