Illinois Schools Receive DOE Grant to Build Microgrids

July 7, 2023
Grant funds will be used to install a microgrid in each of 20 school districts.

As part of its Renew America’s Schools program, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced that 24 local education agencies (LEAs) across the country would share a $178 million grant for infrastructure upgrades.

Among the winners is a coalition of 20 LEAs in Illinois that will use the funds to build microgrids.

Microgrids, electric buses and solar

The Williamsfield school district, a small rural district with just 300 students, is part of the Illinois coalition that includes participants from across the state.

Each coalition member will use the funds to build a microgrid and purchase at least one electric school bus.

The electric bus will be a primary component of the microgrid, with its battery providing resilience during grid outages and giving each LEA the ability to offset peak demand utility charges.

Some members of the coalition will also use a portion of their funds to install solar panels, which can be incorporated into the microgrid.

The microgrids will be designed to send excess energy to the grid, creating a new revenue stream for the districts and offering support to the local grid during times of high electricity demand.

“To me, this is an opportunity for us, as communities, to position ourselves for future proofing and make ourselves communities in which people want to go, people want to work, people want to live,” said Tim Farquer, superintendent of the Williamsfield school district told NPR.

School microgrids benefit students and the broader community

Public schools often serve as gathering places during times of crisis. The resiliency offered by an on-site microgrid means the school can assist its community during extended grid outages – offering residents a place to stay cool during a heat wave or a place to charge their phones during an emergency.

The Illinois schools aren’t the only districts investing in microgrids. Kern Valley High School and the Santa Barbara Unified School District, both in California, are among many others pursuing microgrid projects.

Funding much needed infrastructure projects

Renew America’s Schools grants are designed to help improve the country’s K-12 public school infrastructure, which recently received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

More than half of the country’s K-12 public schools need to update or replace multiple building systems, such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), lighting fixtures and roofing.

Grant funding can be used to pay for alternative fuel vehicles, such as electric school buses and the infrastructure needed to charge them, as well as HVAC system electrification, roofing and insulation upgrades and other energy efficiency initiatives that will reduce building operating costs.

An unprecedented response

The DOE began accepting round one applications for the grants in April. In a sign of how desperately public schools need infrastructure funding, officials called the response unprecedented.

LEAs from 44 states submitted applications for funds totaling more than $1.6 billion, well in excess of the $80 million the DOE originally earmarked for round one.

Because of the unanticipated number of applications, the agency more than doubled the funds released in 2023, ultimately awarding $178 million to 24 different LEAs in late June, including the Illinois coalition.

The program prioritizes projects in high-need communities, with 23 of the winners being Title 1 schools. Title 1 schools are in lower income neighborhoods and have a high percentage of students that qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The DOE expects to release a second round of funding in the spring of 2024.

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About the Author

Kathy Hitchens | Special Projects Editor

I work as a writer and special projects editor for Microgrid Knowledge. I have over 30 years of writing experience, working with a variety of companies in the renewable energy, electric vehicle and utility sector, as well as those in the entertainment, education, and financial industries. I have a BFA in Media Arts from the University of Arizona and a MBA from the University of Denver.

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