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Illinois school coalition plans buildout of electric 'microgrids' with $15 million in grant funding

A new grant program from the U.S. Department of Energy is poised to send $178 million to American schools for energy efficiency and student health projects. One of the funding recipients is a coalition of 20 Illinois school districts, led by a western Illinois district with just 300 students.

Williamsfield Schools Superintendent Tim Farquer says the long path to the Renew America's Schools grant started three years ago with just eight school districts. Those schools formed the “Bus to Grid” initiative.

“Just to try and help each other get funding for electric buses, in particular,” said Farquer. “But in a way that supports the expansion of renewable energy.”

Over the years, Farquer and the coalition applied for a list of funding opportunities to purchase electric buses and build charging infrastructure for schools around the state. Farquer says it's important to invest in preparing for a switch to electric, not just for environmental reasons, but also for the health of students who ride diesel buses every day.

“The numbers support the fact that we have more respiratory issues with kids and adults than we have in years past,” he said. “And emissions from diesel engines just have a tendency to agitate that.”

The funding from the new Renew America's Schools grant will bring at least one $350,000 electric bus to each of the 20 districts. The footprint of the coalition is a large swathe of Illinois, stretching from Joliet down to Vienna, and from East Moline to Pembroke Township.

Peoria Public Schools District 150 and Washington Central School District 51 are also included in the 20 districts receiving a portion of the funding and projects.

Department of Energy Program Manager for Schools and Nonprofits Sarah Zaleski says the Williamsfield-led coalition receives the largest portion of this round of funding.

“We were really encouraging partnerships through this, because it’s a fair amount of work and we want innovation,” said Zaleski. “So we were looking at school districts that had partners.”

Farquer says private partners across the state like NUVVE, Lion Electric, Siemens and Ameren will also provide assistance on the projects. The school districts won't only receive electric buses. Some are slated for solar panel projects, others for updated HVAC technology and all 20 will construct their own "microgrid."

Zaleski says a microgrid is a way to produce and use energy onsite and sometimes even feed it back into the main electricity grid. Electricity produced by a solar panel or taken from an electric buses’ battery, for instance, could be stored on a microgrid.

Farquer sees a long list of advantages to alternative energy production and storage solutions at schools. At a student level, the microgrid provides more options to keep the school's lights on during emergency situations and makes providing reliable wireless internet easier.

“Back in the day, the water fountains had to work and you had to serve lunch,” Farquer said. “Now, you add to that, you better have wi-fi. If you don’t have wi-fi on campus, things start to go south in a hurry.”

Information provided by the U.S. Department of Energy outlines the scope of funding and projects headed to 20 Illinois school districts.
US Department of Energy
Information provided by the U.S. Department of Energy outlines the scope of funding and projects headed to 20 Illinois school districts.

Many schools have backup energy options, like generators. But, those are often solutions that last for hours, whereas energy stored on a microgrid could last days.

Farquer also sees the microgrid as a community asset, providing a place that could be an emergency shelter in the wake of a natural disaster or a cooling center for vulnerable populations during a heat wave. He says there are potential financial benefits as well.

“You could charge your bus batteries when electricity is cheap,” Farquer said. “Use the energy from the bus batteries to fuel your campus when energy is more expensive so you don’t have to purchase it.”

Long term, he foresees schools will be able to dump excess energy into the main grid during times of peak demand and be paid for the service.

The last few years have seen expansive legislative efforts to improve the country's infrastructure, including but not limited to 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal. While schools may not be one of the first types of infrastructure to come to mind, Zaleski says they're the country’s second largest investment, after roads and bridges.

“But unfortunately there’s so many of them that are in really bad shape,” she said. “There was a report card given out by the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave schools around the country a D+. So, we know there's huge need.”

Farquer believes investing in an electric future of transportation is particularly important in rural areas, like his district and childhood home of Williamsfield. If there's not up to date technology, he says, there's fewer incentives to visit.

“So we will become further isolated,” Farquer said. “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.”

Zaleski says the next phase of the program is budgeting. The Department of Energy will sit down with the grant recipients and work to hammer out exactly how and where the funds will be spent. They'll also make sure everything's in compliance with environmental regulations and finally plot out the projects month by month.

Tentatively, the transferring of funds should start this fall. You can find more information on the Renew America’s Schools grant program here.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.