NH prioritizing ‘disadvantaged’ public schools in energy efficiency grant funding

New Hampshire Bulletin
Published: 7/31/2023 9:51:35 AM
Modified: 7/31/2023 9:51:32 AM

The state’s Department of Energy is giving economically disadvantaged public schools a better chance at accomplishing energy efficiency projects, as part of an effort to align itself with a federal directive from President Joe Biden.

A competitive matching grant program designed to advance projects in public and chartered public schools in small communities, the School Energy Efficiency Development Grant Program, known as SEED, was created with federal dollars in 2018. Since the program’s inception, four energy efficiency projects have been successfully completed in Hill, Lempster, New Boston and Litchfield, using $335,000 in grants. A fifth project in Berlin is underway.

The projects have resulted in a combined annual savings of more than $65,000, 33,945 kilowatt hours of electricity and more than 5,200 gallons of heating fuel, according to the Department of Energy, which puts out a request for proposals annually. Schools can apply to use the funding for insulation, lighting, weather sealing, appliances and equipment, retrofitting and replacement of windows and doors.

Last year, the grant program changed its scoring criteria for the pool of federal energy efficiency money to tip the scale in the application process for less-advantaged schools, part of an effort to advance a federal environmental justice initiative by President Biden. A related public comment process in February explored how the department could improve grant accessibility and the application itself.

“The change was made to align with the goals of the federal Justice40 Initiative and to target those public schools that may not have the administrative resources or funding to complete meaningful energy efficiency improvements to improve school environments and reduce a school’s operating costs for school district budgets and property taxpayers,” said Amanda Noonan, director of consumer services for the Department of Energy.

In January 2021, Biden issued an executive order titled “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” part of which established the Justice40 Initiative. The effort directs 40% of overall benefits of certain federal investments to flow to disadvantaged communities. That includes clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution and development of clean water infrastructure.

In order to qualify as a “disadvantaged” public school for a SEED grant, 24% or more of a school’s total student population must be eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, or the school must be located within a census tract that is labeled “disadvantaged” based on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Justice Mapping Tool.

Applications meeting this criteria receive additional points during the scoring process. If selected, a qualifying school is required to match 20% of the award, while other applicants must match 30%.

Because of an additional $3.5 million made available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Department of Energy is also looking at offering an additional round of the SEED money for schools in larger communities with slightly modified eligibility criteria.

Stakeholder feedback

When the Department of Energy solicited comments on the SEED program earlier this year, it heard from a handful of clean energy advocates, building consultants, and school districts.

Some commenters were pleased with the existing application and requirements. Scott Gross, business administrator for SAU 19, said New Boston Central School was previously awarded an $80,000 match through a “fairly straightforward” process. He received “excellent support” from a grant administrator with the DOE, he noted.

Others, like Dr. Sydney Leggett, interim superintendent for the Plainfield and Cornish school districts, felt that SEED grants need to be more accessible to small, rural school districts.

“The scope of need should be a top priority, and trying to help districts that have had to postpone facility improvements due to other tax burdens and constraints,” Leggett wrote.

She asked the DOE to reduce the administrative burden, as administrators in small school districts are often wearing “many hats” and don’t have the time or personnel to meet application requirements that other schools may do easily.

Dick Henry, manager of Concord-based DDH Energy Consulting who worked with the Litchfield School District on its grant proposal, said underserved communities may need technical support and consulting services in navigating certain grant programs. SEED funding is “desperately needed” in New Hampshire, he said, but navigating the process for some lesser-resourced districts is “most likely impossible” without more grant writing assistance and related funds.

“Their buildings are in worse shape, their tax base is smaller, and an additional tax burden to fund projects significantly impacts the tax base of these poor communities,” Henry said. “Though many have highly dedicated school boards, they probably don’t have an energy committee.”

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