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Schools should prepare now to apply for new energy infrastructure grants from the Energy Department

In the fall of 2022, the application process will open for public K-12 schools to apply for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements grants from a new Department of Energy (DOE) program. DOE will be offering $500 million under a competitive grant program included as Section 40541 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). This competitive grant program will be open from 2022 to 2026, or until all funds have been expended.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 53% of public school districts report the need to update or replace multiple building systems, including HVAC systems. Energy consumption is the second-highest operational expense schools face (after salaries and compensation) with a significant portion of energy lost through school walls and windows, and because of other inefficient equipment and systems.

Grant eligibility

Eligible entities for the grants include a combination of a local educational agency (like a school district) or other organization with the knowledge and capacity to partner and assist with energy improvements.

Projects eligible for grants include energy improvements or renovations to a school that result in a direct reduction in school energy costs. This may mean improvements to the air conditioning, ventilation, heating, domestic hot water heating, compressed air, distribution, lighting or power systems, as well as to controls of a building. Eligible projects also include any improvements or renovations in a school that lead to an improvement in teacher and student health, saves energy or involves the installation of renewable energy technologies.

Grants can also be used for the installation of alternative fueled vehicle infrastructure on school grounds for:

  • exclusive use of school buses, school fleets, or students;
  • the general public; and
  • the purchase or lease of alternative fueled vehicles to be used by a school

Competitive criteria

In awarding grants, the DOE shall give priority to schools:

  • with renovation, repair, and improvement funding needs
  • with a high percentage of students who are eligible for a free or reduced price lunch, or
  • that leverages private sector investment through energy-related performance contracting

In considering grant applications, DOE also will consider the extent of the disparity between the fiscal capacity of a school to carry out energy improvements and the needs of the partnering local educational agency for those energy improvements. It also will consider the likelihood that the school that is the subject of improvements is maintained in good condition, as well as the potential energy efficiency and safety benefits from the proposed energy improvements.

According to DOE guidance, only local educational agencies and public schools are eligible entities for funding; private schools are not eligible.

Get ready to apply

Keeping in mind that this is a competitive grant program, here are key steps schools should take to present the best case for funding:

  • Prepare a facility assessment. This likely will require engaging with a local architect, HVAC contractor or energy consultant to conduct an in-depth assessment of all school buildings to identify items that would qualify for an energy grant under this program.
  • Assess free lunch population. Since one of the grant considerations is the percentage of students who are eligible for a free or reduced price lunch, schools should make sure this information is accurate and up to date.
  • Take advantage of electric vehicle demand. In school districts in regions where demand for and use of electric and other alternative-fueled vehicles is high, installing charging stations or related infrastructure can serve a couple of purposes. It can create more positive ties between the school and the community. It can also serve as an incentive for teachers and other employees to work at that school.
  • Prepare for the application process. The DOE anticipates that the application process will open in late fall 2022; check eere-exchange.energy.gov for announcements and guidance on the process. Schools should be prepared to register with the proper government portals so they can be submit their completed grant application as soon as possible after the process opens.
  • Use data to your advantage. Since this is a competitive grant, schools should be prepared to support their grant applications with specific data related to the expected energy savings, increased energy efficiency, numbers of people who can access new electric car charging stations, percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, and other related data.
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