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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Little Geothermal Schoolhouse on the Prairie

December 16, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

My hometown, Walnut Grove, is plotting a path forward for Minnesota’s public policymakers even when that’s the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. All they want to do is save themselves a few bucks and free funds for learning.

Like every Minnesota school, Westbrook-Walnut Grove is trying to do as much, if not more, with less. While costs grow, Minnesota state policymakers choose to invest fewer fiscal resources in public schools. Between the state’s funding policy pattern and determined conservative attacks on public schools as a whole, it’s hard not to conclude that Minnesota’s public schools have been cast adrift.

But, a funny thing happened on the way to the scrap heap. Schools didn’t roll over and die. They’ve continued working to educate their district’s children, control costs and deliver on schooling’s transformative promise.

In Westbrook-Walnut Grove, crafting a future means lowering energy costs. They’re working to turn a six-digit energy budget line item into five digits. Cost savings accrue directly to the school district’s bottom line giving the school board a powerful incentive to innovate.

For years, schools, like most Minnesota business and home owners, accepted energy costs with a certain disinterested disregard. It was what it was even as cheap energy became modestly priced energy.

The 1970s-era oil embargo was our first wake-up call, propelling sudden interest in energy conservation. While energy issue interest ebbs and flows, growing power costs means that smart, sustainable energy solutions remain close to the surface. Reducing energy use is an important step towards saving the planet but it’s a quick step towards cutting the electric bill.

Most Minnesota school buildings are not new. In lots of communities, the “new” school facility is the one built 30 or 40 years ago. Most are a hodgepodge of additions, extensions and tacked on wings. Westbrook-Walnut Grove is no exception.

Old buildings mean old insulation, old heating systems, old windows, and old energy-inefficient design. What was a reasonable heat generation choice in 1951, 1971 or even 1991, now contributes to schools’ rising power bill.

Strategies for cutting energy bills have moved way past turning off lights in empty classrooms. Improved insulation and high efficiency windows are high on everyone’s list. Westbrook-Walnut Grove, determined to substantially cut heating and cooling costs, is contemplating investing in geothermal energy systems.

Geothermal, from the Greek, means “heat from the earth.” Typically, it’s a heat exchange system that uses relatively constant subsoil temperatures to seasonally heat or cool a building. In the winter, a heat transfer fluid is warmed by cycling through coils buried well below the frost line. The warmed solution, usually around 55 degrees, is further warmed by another power source before circulating in the building, warming the air. Starting with a higher temperature heat source reduces additional heating costs.

In the summer, the process can be reversed with air conditioner warmed water being cooled by subsoil temperatures before being recirculated. In either case, using buried temperature-stable exchange coils reduces the need for outside energy and lowers power consumption.

If a building relies on expensive heating oil to generate heat, the geothermal system’s capital investment costs can be recouped in a few years. Replacing natural gas, a very efficient power generation source, can require a decade or more. Geothermal systems are, however, the most efficient, sustainable and cost-effective space conditioning systems going. Combining them with improved insulation and high efficiency windows dramatically lowers heating and cooling costs.

Because conservative policy has cast Minnesota schools adrift, Westbrook-Walnut Grove will have to finance a geothermal system’s installation. The cost-savings make the move attractive anyway but imagine the impact if Minnesota created a geothermal energy systems challenge fund, contributing to geothermal capital conversion costs. Energy cost savings could quickly accrue and be applied to the school’s budget bottom line. Without increasing school funding formulas, schools would realize increased revenue.

Let me restate this. Cut heating bills. Embrace sustainable energy systems. Have more money to spend on the educational mission.

This is not a radical ideal. Geothermal systems have been around for years. They just keep getting better. Schools are ideal sites as most have open space for the lowest cost coil installation.

A state-facilitated school district geothermal conversion project is practical. It could be implemented in short-order. It has further benefits of increasing use of sustainable energy technology, lowering the price. It would create construction and installation jobs. It would take advantage of historically low project financing interest rates.

School district energy system conversion to geothermal will move Minnesota forward. It’s smart, sensible and practical which is exactly why the Westbrook-Walnut Grove Schools are doing it. They’re not tackling this project to improve Minnesota educational and energy policy options. WWG wants to lower its heating bill and spend more money in the classroom. But along the way, they’re blazing a path for all of Minnesota.

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  • Nancy Gertner says:

    December 21, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Westbrook-Walnut Grove is a consolidated school district with facilities in two towns. Is geothermal being considered as an investment for facilities in both locations?