The U.S. Department of Energy has announced the first round of a new grant that will fund energy improvements in schools.
The Renew America’s Schools grant program provides a total of $500 million in funding. The first round of grants will provide up to $80 million for schools to install energy efficient lighting and HVAC systems, improve the insulation of their buildings, switch to electric vehicles, and convert facilities to renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
The grant program was included in the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that President Joe Biden signed Nov. 15. While it touches on key priorities of green building advocates, the grant falls far short of the $100 billion in new federal funding for school infrastructure Biden originally proposed.
The Energy Department “is working diligently to deploy these critical funds so that schools can start turning infrastructure improvements into healthier learning environments and big cost savings, as soon as possible,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement Tuesday.
Here’s what you need to know.
Aging buildings cost school districts big bucks
Many district leaders say school energy improvements aren’t a “nice-to-have.” Aging buildings and neglected, inefficient systems lead them to sink funding into utilities instead of directing it into the classroom.
And school building quality can affect student learning. In some districts, extreme heat led to repeated missed days of school in August. And climate experts expect that pattern to continue to worsen as warming trends affect parts of the country where air conditioning isn’t a standard building feature.
Just how neglected are school facilities? Here are some key findings from a June 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office.
You can read more about those concerns, and gaps in state funding for school facilities projects, in this story from the Education Week archives.
Schools have other sources of funds for facilities upgrades
The Energy Department said Tuesday that, in awarding the first round of energy efficiency funding, it will prioritize districts “that qualify as rural and/or high poverty.” School districts must apply for the competitive grant funding, described as a “first-of-its-kind” program by the agency.
But the new funding might not go very far, considering the scale of the need.
In 2021, Education Week profiled a district that had a $30 million backlog in facilities projects. And that’s not an uncommon occurrence. In Baltimore, officials have estimated it could cost more than $15 million to upgrade a single school’s HVAC system.
In addition to the new energy department funding, school districts can also spend federal COVID relief aid provided through the American Rescue Plan on facilities projects. Such plans have presented challenges, though, as the money comes with a 2024 spending deadline and education leaders juggle continuing shortages of labor and materials.
Schools have a big energy footprint
Making large buildings like schools more energy efficient doesn’t just make good financial sense; it will also help address the climate crisis, green building advocates say.
Schools are the second largest sector of U.S. infrastructure, the Department of Energy said. Every year, the nation’s schools emit as much carbon as 18 coal plants or 8 million homes, according to an analysis by the advocacy group Generation180, which supports renewable energy. (There are about 129,000 K-12 schools in the United States.)
Experts have recommended a variety of strategies for school districts that want to tackle the challenge. You can read about them in Education Week’s ongoing series on schools and climate change.