With vaccine efforts ramping up to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, California public school districts are actively working on plans to reopen schools for in-person instruction. As multiple funding sources, like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, directly recognize the need for improved HVAC systems for a safer learning environment, California has its own K–12 program for funding improvements to these critical building systems.

Passed in September of 2020, Assembly Bill (AB) 841, created the Schools Energy Efficiency Stimulus (SEES) Program to fund improvements for HVAC systems and replacement of non-code compliant plumbing fixtures through grants for California K–12 public schools. Learn more about the basis of AB 841 here.

As part of the COVID-19 pandemic response, the SEES Program has gone through an expedited process to start accepting applications and help schools move forward with funding work. Typically, where a state grant funding program of this scope and magnitude would take much longer to move through statutory approval and program development, the SEES Program has rolled out quickly and the California Energy Commission (CEC) leaders have made it clear that the program will continually evolve. Therefore, the CEC has released a significant amount of detailed information regarding year one of the program, giving a clearer picture of what to expect for this year’s offering.

Updates on AB 841

Draft Guidelines

Draft guidelines for the SEES Program have been released by the CEC, providing detail on the program’s overall process, program budget allocations, application structure, scope of work, and reporting structure. The CEC held virtual workshops in January to allow school officials and industry experts to ask questions and weigh in with comments and insight on the initial draft guidelines. Public questions and comments were also submitted by email. Learn more about the initial draft guidelines here.

Budget

For the SEES Program, the CEC announced that the annual budget for program year one (2021) will be $275 million statewide. This would include a $200 million statewide allocation for the School Reopening Ventilation and Energy Efficiency Verification and Repair (SRVEVR) program and $75 million for the School Noncompliant Plumbing Fixture and Appliance (SNPFA) program. These budgets will be distributed proportionally across the four California investor-owned utility (IOU) territories, based on the proportion contributed by each IOU via ratepayer public purpose funds to the program coffers. The budgets will also be further segmented into tiers based on local educational agency (LEA) enrollment with a set percentage allocated to each tier. For example, this means that 15.7 percent of a territories annual program budget will be dedicated to LEAs with fewer than 1,000 students enrolled.

 

Table 1: Funding Tiers & Allocated Budget Percentages

Tier Number of Students Allocated Percentage of Annual Budget
1 Fewer than 1,000 15.7%
2 Between 1,000 and 2,000 21.1%
3 Between 2,001 and 10,000 31.6%
4 Greater than 10,000 31.6%

 

Eligibility

The SEES Program is intended to include all K–12 LEAs in California served by the major IOUs with a minimum of 25 percent of the program’s funding being reserved for LEAs within disadvantaged communities as specified within the assembly bill language. For 2021, the program will only accept applications from LEAs that meet the criteria for disadvantaged status. Since this status is determined at the school site level rather than the district level, it is possible for a district to have both schools that qualify and schools that do not qualify for program eligibility in 2021. As it may determine priority for later program years, further clarity is expected from the CEC on applications that include qualifying and non-qualifying sites.

Scope of Work

The SEES Program will fund detailed HVAC assessments and repair and maintenance work for filtration and damper systems, upgrades to include demand control ventilation and other control-related functionality, and full HVAC unit replacement. Currently for 2021, the SEES Program will fund HVAC assessments and repair and maintenance items arising from completed assessments. Funding approval is not expected for applications with upgrades and full unit replacements. Additionally, while funding for HVAC assessments is intended to pay licensed professionals (professional engineers, certified test-and-balance technicians, etc.), there currently isn’t funding for hiring consultants to handle the significant amount of administrative work that will go into the application and reporting process necessary for program participation.

Applications 

Applying for the SEES Program will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis with priority within an LEAs respective tier being based on date and time of submission. If an LEA submits an application with errors/omissions, that application will be sent back for correction. The date and time of resubmission will determine that LEAs place in the application queue, and with a limited program budget, could cause an LEA to miss out on funding in 2021.

Conclusion

The SEES Program represents a significant opportunity for eligible California public schools to upgrade their facilities by improving their HVAC systems. While the 2021 program year will limit both eligibility and the available scope of work, school officials can and should see the SEES Program as a catalyst to taking the right steps to evaluate their building HVAC systems and understand the potential cost required to correct any existing problems. With the influx of CARES funding, districts can take advantage of the confluence of these funding streams to leverage their ability to get more work done and solve facility problems that were likely already there before COVID-19 and will persist long after.

To learn how your school district can take advantage of these programs and prepare your school to reopen, email ab841@southlandind.com.

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  • Dominic Cardenas is a Senior Account Executive at Southland Energy. Focusing on government funding for infrastructure improvements, energy conservation, and resiliency, he is responsible for helping public and private clients improve infrastructure to meet their needs by maximizing existing revenue streams, reducing operating costs, and identifying available outside funding sources. With a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Davis and 15 years of experience, Dominic leverages his expertise and previous experience as a consultant to the California investor-owned utilities to drive success at Southland Energy.

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