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Building Energy Resilience in School Districts

District-wide energy and operational resilience is becoming a growing concern for school districts. But while administrators recognize the strain of losing uptime in their facilities and the costly consequences of lost power, they may not recognize the resilience they seek is not out of reach.

Schools can take the first steps in three critical resilience-building areas:

  1. The formation of emergency preparedness plans
  2. The implementation of energy and operational efficiency measures
  3. The addition of resilient technologies and renewable energy

What is energy resilience?

The disruptions experienced across the country in recent years— from the California wildfire safety outages in late-2019 and -2020, to extended facility shutdowns due to increasingly common extreme heat and severe storms— have dramatically changed the way all school districts must think and approach energy resilience.

Resilience is an organization’s ability to adapt to risks and threats that challenge its day to day operations. When it comes to a school’s energy supply, resilience means they can keep lights on and premises secure, even through wildfires, severe weather, natural disasters and planned and unplanned power outages.

The strategies for increasing energy resilience can include everything from using energy efficient technologies and appliances, to installing onsite renewable energy and/or batteries, to bringing it all together under a microgrid system that prioritizes critical loads to maintain operation, even during extended power outages.

Further reading: Why every community needs resilient schools

Building resilience into energy infrastructure can make schools self-sufficient

Building a resilient school energy infrastructure can help schools avoid the worst challenges of unexpected weather events, including:

  • Loss of educational hours required for state funding
  • Food spoilage from extended periods of time without adequate temperature control
  • Risking the safety and comfort of staff and students without lights, heat, cameras, fire alarms and in some cases, even water supply
  • Insurance limitations and utility reimbursement policies requiring districts to absorb financial burden during planned outages
  • Lack of resources for students who require additional support, such as school-issued meals

Resiliency improvements also benefit budget stability. Renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions can generate recurring energy savings, lowering a school district’s operating costs. And if a school meets its own energy needs via solar or wind power, it in turn won’t need to purchase as much power from the grid. That’s especially helpful as energy prices become higher and more volatile. In other words, resiliency both lowers risk and creates more cost-efficient and sustainable schools.

Further reading: Weather patterns are changing and so should your facilities

The technology behind resilient schools

Connecting technology and energy efficiency allows a district to choose when and how it uses its energy, including when it’s on- and off-grid. There are numerous resilient technologies and solutions that can help districts achieve greater energy independence and reliability. Resilient technology allows schools to:

  • Use energy only where it’s needed

Systems such as smart metering software and power quality mitigation equipment help optimize the cost, reliability, and quality of electrical power. Other options include installing energy efficient lighting, appliances, and HVAC systems that require less power and use it more efficiently.

  • Incorporate multiple sources of energy

Decentralized energy sources, such as onsite solar panels, wind turbines, existing backup generators, and battery storage create resilience because they can reduce power prices, minimize reliance on the grid and are often made more easily accessible through government incentive schemes.

Further reading: 3 urgent reasons schools should adopt solar power – beyond ‘going green’

  • Make your systems work together

Microgrids combine elements of the above two bullets to improve control over power supply. By linking other energy technologies, microgrids allow schools to unlock the full power of their energy systems and can enable them to maintain power access from local sources even when a grid-wide outage occurs. In addition, many solar arrays won’t operate during outages. A microgrid can ensure new and existing arrays will operate even with the utility offline.

Among the many benefits schools gain from resilient energy systems, peace of mind that your staff and students will remain safe and connected during an unexpected disruption takes priority. As schools are often utilized as critical emergency response centers, proper resiliency solutions can maintain functioning to support not just staff and students, but the entire community as shelters.

District leaders should prioritize climate-resilient schools now

While recent years have tasked school districts with some of the greatest energy challenges in modern times, these certainly will not be the last. Schools that focus on building resilience and sustainability into their energy programs will be better prepared to weather events from natural disasters or other crises. Fortunately, the federal government has now made unprecedented levels of funding available to schools to begin the transition.

Explore steps your organization can take today to build greater energy resilience, and future proof your schools for any future disruptions.