Building Energy Resilience in School Districts

October 22, 2020

District-wide energy and operational resilience is becoming a growing concern for school districts. As 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. In fact, many schools have already done a combination of two critical resilience-building activities:

  1. The formation of emergency preparedness plans
  2. The implementation of energy and operational efficiency measures

Resilience is an organization’s ability to adapt to risks and threats that challenge its future viability. 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 disruptions experienced across the country in recent years—with the wildfire safety outages in late-2019 and -2020, and the unprecedented spread of COVID-19 leading to extended facility shutdowns—has dramatically changed the way many school districts must think and approach energy infrastructure and resilience.

Building resilience into energy infrastructure can make schools self-sufficient

The need for energy resilience is an emerging focal point for districts in response to the pandemic and planned and unplanned outages.

During the outages and unplanned shutdowns, administrators were faced with unprecedented challenges:

  • Loss of educational hours required for state funding and use of all planned emergency days, possibly even filing a J-13A waiver when all other options were exhausted
  • Food spoilage from several days without adequate temperature controls
  • Safety and security of staff and students was at risk without lights, heat, cameras, fire alarms and in some cases, even water supply
  • Emergency preparedness plans were not adequate for what turned into a long-term outage
  • Insurance limitations and utility reimbursement policies meant absorbing financial burden during planned outages
  • Students requiring additional support, such as school-issued meals, would need the district to remain operational throughout the outage

And during the pandemic, schools have needed to navigate yet another suite of challenges:

  • Unexpected and extended closures of school facilities required unplanned management and maintenance
  • In order to reopen to students, health measures must adhere to certain regulations that are put into jeopardy when the power is not reliable, such as extended HVAC operational hours and increase air exchange rates
  • IT continuity is critical for both distance learning and teacher safety, as many teachers are doing remote learning from their own classrooms and need the facility to remain safe, operational and secure

Building energy resilience means developing the capability to maintain energy access during disruption while mitigating energy pricing volatility risk. 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.

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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

While the past year has 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.

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

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