As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools around the nation are finding that they need to make some momentous changes to some of their most energy-intensive equipment and systems. Even as vaccines roll-out, concern over coronavirus variants are forcing school boards to acknowledge that they’ll need to make proactive changes to their buildings to better protect staff and students today and in the future. Now, with funding becoming available to help schools fulfill these goals, schools have a choice to move forward with safer equipment while also better controlling the higher operational costs of more energy-intensive equipment.

Utilities can play a significant role in helping schools lessen this tremendous expense, the second greatest expense for school systems after salaries. Through educational resources, grant writing assistance, and additional incentives, utilities can support schools in their energy reduction efforts.

Post-COVID reopening strategies present an opportunity

Schools across the nation continue to fluctuate between virtual and in-person learning, with all manner of hybrid options in between. Getting kids back into the classroom fulltime will require a layered approach to reducing the risk of transmitting viral particles. The first and most effective layer, however, is most likely an adjustment or improvement to the existing HVAC system.

The EPA is advising that professionals operating schools consult ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) guidance on strategies to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 viral particles through the air. For its part, ASHRAE has taken the position that the “Changes to building operations, including the operation of [HVAC] systems, can reduce airborne exposures.”

The simplest changes to HVAC operations involve increasing the outdoor air exchange rate and the efficiency of in-duct filters. However, each of these approaches presents other challenges. In the case of the former, any change made to the outdoor air exchange rate will impact other factors, including humidity, comfort levels and energy use. In addition, these higher outdoor air exchange rates are not always sustainable for long periods of time. In the case of the latter, not all HVAC systems are able to support the higher MERV-rated filters that are better able to capture relevant viral particles. For many schools, these changes will only be possible with the installation of new or upgraded equipment.

A report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in June 2020, found that 41% of all school districts needed to update or replace their HVAC systems at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding has been holding schools back from making many of these changes, but that now stands to change.

The Dec. 2020 emergency COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress included $82 billion in funding for HVAC improvements in colleges and schools, including support for HVAC repair and replacement to mitigate virus transmission. Of that, $54.3 billion is earmarked for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, supporting schools in making critical HVAC improvements. President Biden’s Jan. 2021 coronavirus relief package calls for an additional $130 billion in additional aid for K-12 schools.

States, too, are looking at ways to better allocate funding for school improvements. As but one example, in Sept. 2020 California Gov. Newsom signed into law AB 841, better known as the School Energy Efficiency Program. The program transfers around $300 million a year for the next three years to the California Energy Commission to administer to schools. The goal is to help fund schools’ deferred HVAC maintenance, thereby ensuring safe operation during the COVID-19 pandemic, while also incentivizing energy efficiency improvements.

How utilities can help

Schools that have suffered from inadequate ventilation may be perfectly satisfied with upgrading equipment to meet new standards of performance that support reductions in COVID-19 transmission. However, there’s an opportunity here for schools to invest wisely and select building systems that not only perform better, but also do so more efficiently and cost-effectively. The challenge is getting school systems to recognize this possibility.

As the GAO report indicates, the vast majority of schools around the nation have not been able to fund routine HVAC maintenance, so it stands to reason that most decisions for how to invest will be driven by budgets. That’s why it’s important that partners as invested in the energy consumption of these new systems as schools step up now to educate administrators on the value of focusing on long-term operational costs.

This is an area where utilities can serve as a powerful resource in helping schools—and themselves—reduce their energy consumption. Utilities are in an excellent place to centralize identified programs that can help reopen schools, and provide financial and technical services to help schools meet their ventilation needs while dealing with energy objectives.

There are a few areas where utilities in particular can help:

  • Education. Operators of all types of buildings have long used the Return on Investment (ROI) metric to justify an investment. However, as utilities well know, that metric can be misleading. Because ROI calculations do not factor in operational costs, or consider a simple payback period, building owners do not get accurate data on the whole-life savings that more energy-efficient equipment can provide. A Life Cycle Cost (LCC) approach, on the other hand, accounts for the total cost of an equipment installation based on the initial investment costs as well as future operational costs. This calculation can ensure that a school system sees the greatest performance value for the lowest long-term cost. However, encouraging this shift in mindset will require education.
  • Grant writing. Funding may be available, but schools will need to apply for grants to receive this support. Many schools may need support identifying specific needs and addressing how an initially costlier replacement is the right choice. This is particularly true for small and rural schools, as well as those in traditionally disadvantaged communities and with fewer available resources. Some schools may also need assistance in the grant writing process. Utilities may be able to support some of this work or connect schools with energy contractors who can develop compelling grant applications.
  • Additional funding. Utilities have every reason to incentivize energy-efficient upgrades here, as reduced energy consumption from these intensive energy users can make a tremendous impact on utilities’ energy goals. Supporting disadvantaged schools, for example, may help utilities meet some of their equity objectives. By incentivizing energy efficiency in these schools’ ventilation upgrades, utilities can control how much new power they need to buy, while also meeting efficiency or greenhouse gas reduction goals.

For many schools, these system repairs and replacements are well overdue. They are also only one of many costs that school districts are shouldering as a result of this pandemic. It would be all too easy to go with the most cost-effective switch, only to soon find schools are bearing the added cost of more energy-intensive equipment. That increase could be disastrous, given the high cost associated with what is already the second highest expenditure for schools.

Fortunately for these schools, there are many resources available to help them make strong choices for their future operations. Similarly, utilities don’t have to shoulder this work alone. By working with a partner like Lincus, utilities can support the needs of their customers.

Ready to make a plan for supporting school systems? Contact Lincus today.