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.
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.