Last year, Californians became intimately familiar with the concept of Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). These preemptive shutdowns of the power grid are designed to prevent wildfires that could be sparked if high winds downed power lines. Millions of California utility customers were impacted by PSPS-related power outages last fall, and in October alone, more than 1,000 schools were closed for multiple days because they had no power.¹
Administrators worried districts might lose funding if students missed too much instruction. Rescue Union School District in El Dorado County opened schools with no electricity; generators powered Internet systems and space heaters, and lanterns provided lighting. "We decided to get creative if this was going to keep happening," superintendent Cheryl Olsen told EdSource at the time.²
Other districts decided that it wouldn't be safe to reopen. "We determined, based on input with all of the principals, because of darkness in the morning, cold in the morning, absence of fire alarms and bells, that we couldn't safely open schools without power," said Ron Carruth, superintendent of the El Dorado Union High School District.³ "I think in those areas specifically served by PG&E, we all feel a need to develop a plan. They have said publicly that this is a condition that will likely exist for the next 10 years. We have to find a way to not be dependent on PG&E, so we don't have a school year disrupted like we had for the last two weeks."
PSPS service disruptions are top-of-mind for many district administrators, but they are not the only cause for concern. Increases in storms and wildfires caused by climate change, as well as an aging electric infrastructure, are also likely to increase the frequency of power outages across the state.
While the weather is relatively mild, and the current school year is winding down, school districts can seize the opportunity to re-evaluate their preparedness for future disruptions in electric service—whatever the cause. Such planning for energy resiliency should be conducted meticulously. Unanticipated issues can lead to significant cost overruns and ineffective response to power outage events.
Ideally, energy resiliency should be addressed within the district's overall energy management strategy. When planning for energy resiliency, administrators should consider the following questions:
Do our schools have a resilient energy infrastructure?
The U.S. Department of Defense defines energy resilience as "the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to utility disruptions and changing environmental conditions, and to withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from utility disruptions while continuing normal operations."⁴ School districts should evaluate whether they are prepared to operate normally in the event of a prolonged power outage. Sources of emergency backup power, such as diesel generators, may not be able to support all school functions for days at a time.
Which systems and processes are indispensable?
A needs assessment is crucial in determining whether current backup power sources can meet the district's needs. Can schools safely serve students without lights? Is air conditioning a necessity or a luxury? Are some IT systems higher priority than others? What about cafeteria services or the district's transportation office? Finally, in an emergency, would the district's schools provide shelter or other services to local residents? To what degree would doing so require electricity?
How long could backup power sources support indispensable functions?
After determining needs, district administrators should evaluate the power-outage scenarios most likely to affect their schools. For each scenario, they should consider how long backup power sources would need to support the key systems and processes identified in the needs assessment, and how much energy each requires.
What resources are available?
To enhance the feasibility of their proposed resiliency measures, districts can tap into a variety of financial resources. These include incentives and rebates for energy efficiency, renewable energy generation (such as solar), and energy storage technologies. Additional resources should be forthcoming, as recent disasters have spurred legislative efforts to help communities better prepare for, and respond to, future events.
With that in mind, district administrators who want to be better prepared for this new normal should not wait for policymakers. Optimal energy resiliency solutions are not built during times of crisis. Infrastructure and process changes take time to design and implement. By taking the lead now in energy resiliency planning, administrators can give their districts the best chance of successfully weathering future disruptions in energy service.
¹Diana Lambert, "California schools closed for unprecedented number of days due to fire, power outages," EdSource, November 5, 2019.
²Diana Lambert, "California schools closed for unprecedented number of days due to fire, power outages," EdSource, November 5, 2019.
³Diana Lambert, "California schools closed for unprecedented number of days due to fire, power outages," EdSource, November 5, 2019.
⁴Hon. Alex Beehler and J.E. Jack Surash, "Cutting the Cord to Test Energy Resilience," U.S. Army, April 13, 2020.