Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.
School & District Management

FEMA Will Pay Schools Affected By Disasters for Energy-Efficient Upgrades

By Mark Lieberman — January 31, 2024 3 min read
The solar panel array at Sheridan Elementary School in Sheridan, Ind., pictured on Aug. 24, 2017. School districts installing solar are trying to complete their project's before Dec. 31, ahead of changes in Indiana's net metering law.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

School buildings that experience natural disasters are now eligible for federal funding to install solar panels and other energy-efficient systems when they rebuild, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Tuesday.

Through the FEMA Public Assistance program, the federal government commits to covering 75 percent of the cost of rebuilding schools and other public institutions like hospitals following floods, tornadoes, and other storms.

With the new policy, schools can now include in their reimbursement requests the cost of solar panels, geothermal heat pumps, and other modern systems designed to improve sustainability.

Schools can take advantage of this funding opportunity for any disaster declared after Aug. 16, 2022, the agency said in a press release.

The goals of the policy, according to the agency, include offering incentives for schools to help with the nationwide effort to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Schools and other facilities that install energy-producing systems can stay open and even provide power to surrounding communities in the event of an electrical outage, said Tish Tablan, senior program director at Generation180, an advocacy nonprofit that promotes clean energy adoption.

The Santa Barbara district in California, for instance, experienced wildfires and mudslides in 2018 that forced schools to temporarily serve as emergency shelters. Since then, Tablan said, the district has invested in solar canopies and battery storage that will prevent future outages.

“When schools close, students are out of school, they’re missing learning days,” Tablan said. “We want to see schools being able to stay open and serve both students and the community as consistently as possible.”

Energy efficiency is becoming a bigger priority for school districts

A growing number of schools have begun investing in energy-efficient building systems or making plans to do so when existing systems fail. As of 2021, 7,332 schools nationwide had solar panels, according to Generation180. (For context, there were more than 99,000 public schools in the United States during the 2021-22 school year.)

Some states are pitching in to help schools make these transitions. Maine has a grant program for schools that want geothermal heat pumps to replace traditional HVAC systems. New Mexico is poised to pass a bill to begin offering tax credits to companies that contract with schools to install solar.

The federal government is offering its own financial incentives for energy efficiency in schools. Districts can now request reimbursement through “direct pay” from the Internal Revenue Service for a significant portion of the costs of sustainable building projects like solar panels and heat pumps.

See Also

Photo of excavator by new high school.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

The long-term cost savings can be substantial: The St. Peter school district in Minnesota saves $10,000 a year on utility bills thanks to six solar panels on the roof of its high school, Superintendent Bill Gronseth told MPR News.

But the upfront costs of these systems are often steep, posing a challenge for districts with limited cash on hand.

Schools also face other logistical obstacles. Schools in Minnesota last year requested so much state grant money for solar panels that many districts got less than they asked for, MPR News reported. And in California and Virginia, new regulations and utility company policies have some school leaders concerned that solar projects will be less cost-effective in the future.

The new federal money from FEMA may bring its own complications.

Districts often struggle to promptly secure FEMA funding or reimbursement even when it’s offered. Many school business officials struggled mightily to convince the agency to pay them back in a timely manner for the cost of protective equipment they bought in the early days of the pandemic.

The agency has 35 percent fewer staff members than it needs, according to its own calculations.

Still, Tablan calls the FEMA announcement “such a win for schools.” She thinks schools that try to use these funds should braid them with other funds, like the “direct pay” opportunity through the IRS, which reimburses school districts for a substantial portion of energy efficiency projects.

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management What the Research Says Most Schools Have Early-Warning Systems. Some Kids Are Still Getting Lost
A study finds that one such system prevented absenteeism among some students but not others.
4 min read
Illustration of a warning symbol.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion Restorative Practices Don’t Just Belong in the Classroom. Leaders Should Use Them, Too
Respectful conflict resolution, starting meetings with a talking circle, and other ways this administrator is walking the walk.
Sonja Gedde
5 min read
A team of colleagues comes to a resolution in a conceptual illustration about building bridges
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management Electric Buses Hit Some Road Bumps, But They're Still Catching On
The number of electric school buses is rising—and there’s no shortage of growing pains involving funding, legal mandates, and operations.
8 min read
Yellow electric school bus plugged in at a charging station.
Thomas W Farlow/iStock/Getty
School & District Management This State Created a Retention System for Principals. Here’s Why It Worked
Missouri has deepened the support it offers to new principals through a partly federally funded, two-year mentoring program.
6 min read
Photos of principals walking in school hallway.
E+ / Getty