Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

St. Paul schools turn towards geothermal energy as Minnesota‘s climate shifts

Close up of piping valves
Lights flash on actuator valves connected to the two geothermal wells at the Pipefitters Steamfitters Credit Union in St. Paul on Aug. 7.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2023

Public schools in Minnesota have a growing need to be equipped for a wide range of temperatures. School years in the state can be hot and muggy on either end and freezing in the middle.

And if students are uncomfortable, it’s difficult to focus on learning. A high school on the east side of St. Paul is wrapping up its first year with a new heating and cooling system that draws energy from the ground.

The district plans to install more of these geothermal systems at two other schools as part of its goal of cutting greenhouse gas pollution. The district is joining a larger wave of investments in geothermal energy.

Sahan Journal climate and environment reporter Andrew Hazzard wrote about the district’s switch and joined Minnesota Now to talk about it.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

NINA MOINI: Well, public schools in Minnesota now need to be equipped for a wide range of temperatures. Our school years, as we know, can be hot and muggy on either end and freezing in the middle. And if students are uncomfortable, it's difficult to focus on learning.

A high school on the east side of Saint Paul is wrapping up its first year with a new heating and cooling system that draws energy from the ground. And the district plans to install more of these geothermal systems at two other schools as part of its goal of cutting greenhouse gas pollution. It's joining a larger wave of investments in geothermal, as Sahan Journal Climate and Environment Reporter Andrew Hazzard writes in a recent story. He joins me now to tell us about that. Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW HAZZARD: Hi, Nina. How are you?

NINA MOINI: I'm doing well. Thank you for being here and for your important reporting. So tell me about-- this is Johnson High School, right? And why did the district take this step to install a geothermal system there?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Well, Johnson High School is about 65 years old. So it's an aging building. It had a kind of a facelift on its facade, but it's an old building and did not have air conditioning, right? And so it was relying on heat from these two massive boilers.

And those boilers use natural gas. They are not tremendously energy-efficient. And they were looking for ways to add air conditioning to the facility. But air conditioning, of course, is very energy-intensive.

So how do you bring cooling into a building without increasing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions you're producing? So what they did is they dug about 300 feet below their baseball field. They put 160 very small wells that connect down to a stable temperature within the Earth.

And they are using the natural heat from the Earth to draw heat during the winter and to disperse heat down when it's warmer out. So this is bringing air conditioning to this facility for the first time, which I'm sure they appreciate here on June 4 as it gets into the 80s.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. What an undertaking. People might hear geothermal energy and they might think of Iceland or, you know, different specific geologies. How does this work right here in Saint Paul?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Well, that's what I always thought too, right? Iceland, Hawaii, volcanoes. You need that sort of magic magma power within the Earth to get this going. But it turns out that's not true, and that deep below the earth, there are stable temperatures.

And here in Minnesota, actually, there are an abundance of underground aquifers that can also be used for geothermal. So that means you can dig less deeply and you can access these basically underground groundwater ponds that have very stable temperatures. And that's really plentiful in most of Minnesota, obviously, as a lake-friendly, wetland-heavy state.

And so Saint Paul at two of its other schools, Bruce Vento Elementary and Hidden River Middle School, is using this aquifer system that will only have four wells and that will go much less deep into the ground, but still down far enough to get this stable temperature that's necessary to heat and cool a building.

And so the potential for that in Minnesota is quite large, and we're starting to see more and more groups recognize this. There was that Heights project also in the east side of Saint Paul, where they're building a ton of new housing and facilities.

And that is going to be powered by geothermal as well. So it's abundant here. And it's all about seeing a few people have success with it and following up on that trend.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, you mentioned two other schools. And I'm just curious how they're identifying which buildings and which types of infrastructure are good to sort of invest in this from the beginning. What existing infrastructure's needed to sort of make this work?

ANDREW HAZZARD: I think for Saint Paul Public Schools, these big organizations, right, that have 50, 60, 70 buildings in their portfolio, right, they're constantly doing some sort of maintenance and upgrade. And many of these schools, like Johnson, don't have air conditioning or might pay heavy heating bills.

And so as these buildings come up for their regularly-scheduled maintenance, what they're doing is looking at the ground, seeing, hey, do we have an aquifer below here? Or do we have a site on our campus here where we could dig into the Earth and access some of these stable temperatures to build a geothermal system?

And what I was told by Saint Paul Public Schools is, look, this isn't always going to make sense for every campus, every building, but it can fit for many of them. And so the district, as many organizations in the state do, has this goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 40% to 50% by 2030, 2040-- if you're going to do that, you have to look into this potential, right? And it might not always be there. But when the conditions are correct, when you have those aquifers or where you have ground that you can dig through without creating this completely onerous process, right, then it's something to capitalize on.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. And you've probably been, and I've visited school buildings in classrooms where there isn't AC on those hot days, and there's a bunch of fans going, and the kids are uncomfortable-- people can't concentrate. People have gone as far, before, as to cancel school.

And so when we're talking about at Johnson, what have the results been like? What are you hearing about the last year of being able to implement this?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Well, one of the first things that I learned was that the first week of school this year, in early September 2023, it was hot. And it was noticed and appreciated on day one that there was air conditioning in this building. And you mentioned this a little bit in your intro, but I think everyone's kind of experienced going back to class after maybe a healthy or unhealthy lunch. You're sitting there, and if it's just a little bit warm, that's probably it for you, and focusing, and learning for that day.

NINA MOINI: Nap time. Yeah.

ANDREW HAZZARD: Yeah, that's it. Maybe I wasn't the best student. But that's--

NINA MOINI: I think you're good.

ANDREW HAZZARD: And so when you when you have that comfort that air conditioning brings, it's a little more focused. It's one less thing to bother students or staff members. It's one less thing for everyone to be upset about. And that makes it easier to focus on your schoolwork, or on your extracurricular activities, or just be more comfortable, right? And being more comfortable often produces better results for everybody.

NINA MOINI: Absolutely. And I would imagine that a lot of our school buildings are really aging.


NINA MOINI: What are some of the infrastructure needs that are coming into place here? Because I would assume that this is costly to get these renovations done. How much does it cost? And do you see it becoming a more accessible option?

ANDREW HAZZARD: Yeah. So that's a great point. My middle school did not have air conditioning, and that was not fun. And as you mentioned, that's very common in Minnesota, right, because this wasn't always needed. And many of these school buildings date back to the '40s, or '50s, or '60s, and they didn't have the AC then.

So the cost to implementing a geothermal system is high. So at Johnson, they paid over $18 million for this system. But right now, there are opportunities, through the federal Inflation Reduction Act, for school districts to get a 30% tax credit on this, which means that they can write off 30% of the cost of these projects.

And the thing about these projects is that when you're becoming much more energy efficient, you are lowering the amount of money that you are spending on your energy bills, on your utility bills, right? And so the savings will come over time. And if you add that to these tax credits that are available right now, that accelerates the process, the timeline for which this can be a huge financial win. So at Johnson, they estimate that over 30 years, this system will save them $7 million.

NINA MOINI: Wow. OK. So are there any drawbacks, I guess, to this kind of investment?

ANDREW HAZZARD: I'm not entirely sure of major drawbacks. Obviously, there's always a risk of major construction under the ground running into things that you don't necessarily want to run into. It can cause disruption in the building. I'm sure the Johnson High School baseball team did not love the two seasons that they were relegated to some city park to hang out.

But overall, and there are, of course, kinks to work out when you're getting used to a new system-- but overall, this is considered pretty reliable, pretty stable, pretty available. And we have plenty of engineering firms here in Minnesota and in the Midwest that are more than capable of executing a project like this.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, getting creative and thinking about the future, it sounds like. Thank you so much, Andrew, for sharing your reporting with us.

ANDREW HAZZARD: Thank you, Nina.

NINA MOINI: Andrew Hazzard is a reporter for Sahan Journal focused on climate change and environmental justice. We'll have a link to his story at mprnews.org.

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