St. Paul’s first public school goes greener with geothermal energy

By George Zan

As the climate changes, St. Paul’s public schools can help change how our city chooses its energy systems.

Various types of environmentally friendly energy sources, such as geothermal heating and cooling, are being implemented in our communities, and schools can take the lead.

I’m a student at Johnson Senior High School on the East Side of St. Paul. During the summer of 2021, the school started an $18 million project to upgrade and redesign its heating system to an energy-efficient geothermal HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system.

This fall, the project team finally completed the installation of the first renewable heating and cooling system in the St. Paul school district.

The system consists of 160 vertical wells dug 300 feet into the ground below the baseball field, with the HVAC system located in the boiler room below the school.

It functions by taking water from the ground and filtering it through a heat exchanger to change temperature, depending on what temperature it’s set to.

“It’s using the ground as a way to reject the heat in the summertime and pull heat from it in the wintertime,” said mechanical engineer Angela Vreeland in a Fox 9 news story on Sept. 7. You can see that report at tinyurl.com/spps-hvac.

Why was investing in this project important?

• St. Paul public schools, including Johnson in previous years, have only had heating systems, no air conditioning. Now that there’s an AC system that combats summer heat, students can comfortably focus on their studies at any time of year.

• The transition is a good first step to reducing the school’s carbon footprint.

• It doesn’t require as much space, as the systems are very compact compared to the traditional system.

• It saves 63,000 therms of natural gas yearly, equating to 330 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The system isn’t beneficial only environmentally but financially as well. Although the system still relies on natural gas for heat on very cold winter days, it is expected to reduce natural gas use by 60%, cutting that cost in half.

Installing the new geothermal system had little to no cost difference compared to upgrading the traditional system.

However, the most significant reason for a geothermal system is its efficiency and long-term cost-effectiveness. It can operate year-round and run up to 30 years with less maintenance, due to the nearly infinite availability of geothermal energy compared to traditional systems, which demand nonrenewable sources of energy.

Expanding renewable energy in the community

If more schools could set an example with geothermal energy, it could help influence individuals from local communities to recognize the concern at hand and unite together to assist in the reduction of carbon emissions.

We can help change how St. Paul and all of Minnesota heats, cools and powers its buildings. We should rely less on carbon-based energy sources on a city level and eventually on a statewide scale, but this can only be accomplished through effort and participation in our communities.

Buoyed by news coverage already on geothermal heating, schools and communities in St. Paul and everywhere can be inspired to lower our anthropogenic carbon emissions and maintain a practice of sustainable energy conservation. A safer and cleaner environment is essential to our future. 

George Zan, a senior at Johnson Senior High School, is interested in how St. Paul Public Schools can help reduce the carbon footprint in our communities.


More ways schools can respond to climate change

• Solar for Schools: The state of Minnesota has a grant program to install solar power arrays for public schools: tinyurl.com/mn-solar-schools

• Electric school buses: Several Minnesota school districts have already gained state funding for all-electric buses, and the St. Paul district has applied for it. WCCO story: tinyurl.com/wcco-solar-buses

• Fossil fuel divestment: Last year the St. Paul School Board voted to divest from fossil fuel companies. News coverage: tinyurl.com/spps-divests


Photo caption: Kevin Davis, assistant principal at Johnson Senior High School, stands next to the new geothermal HVAC system in the school’s basement. Photo by George Zan.

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