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Austin ISD is getting federal money to install solar panels at more than a dozen campuses

Workers install solar panels on a roof
Austin Price for KUT

The Austin Independent School District is one of two dozen school systems nationwide to get a new federal grant to make campuses more energy efficient.

Austin ISD will receive nearly $15 million for its “Solar for Schools” project through the U.S. Department of Energy's Renew America’s Schools grant program.

The district will use the money to install solar panels at 16 campuses in historically underserved communities.

The new project will build on Austin ISD’s ongoing efforts to use more solar power. According to the district, more than a dozen of its facilities already have rooftop panels. Those panels produce two megawatts of energy, which is enough to power more than 200 homes.

“We really appreciated how they were integrating both efficiency to reduce their energy use as well as renewables to really switch to cleaner sources of energy,” Sarah Zaleski, the Department of Energy’s schools and nonprofits program director, said.

The department is distributing $178 million to the 24 school systems selected for the first round of funding through the grant program. The bipartisan infrastructure deal Congress approved in 2021 set aside $500 million for the program.

Zaleski said demand for these grants was unprecedented.

“We received over a thousand initial applications for this funding, requesting almost $5.5 billion,” she said.

Most of the grant recipients plan to use the money to improve lighting and upgrade their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Just over 40% plan to use the funds for projects such as installing solar panels.

Zaleski pointed out that making energy improvements helps schools save money on utilities, which is the largest expense for districts after employee salaries.

“We know that schools are under immense pressure from a number of dimensions right now and that every dollar saved can be redirected to really serving our students and educating our students,” she said.

The Austin ISD school board, for example, approved a deficit budget last month. District officials are exploring strategies to reduce the $52 million deficit throughout the next fiscal year.

Zaleski said, ultimately, the Department of Energy hopes to learn from the projects Austin ISD and the other school systems implement. She said the idea is to come up with best practices that can be shared with other school districts nationwide.

“We know that this funding [will] really only be able to support, unfortunately, only a small fraction of the deserved schools out there,” she said. “So, we really want to use these projects as a way to learn and develop some resources for other schools around the country.”

Zaleski said another round of grants will be awarded in 2024.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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