St. Paul school makes switch to alternative heating, cooling system

St. Paul Public Schools welcomed students back this week, and at Johnson High School, students were returning to an air-conditioned campus for the first time.

Johnson High School was the site of a major heating and cooling overhaul, an $18 million project that broke ground in 2021. The site is the first Geothermal system in the St. Paul school district and among the first in the state.

"This project has allowed us to reduce our natural gas by 60 percent or more right out of the gate," said Tom Parent, Executive Director of Operations for the district.

More than half of St. Paul schools currently don’t have air conditioning, with some of the buildings more than 100 years old.

The Johnson High School project broke ground in 2021, with crews digging 160 wells 300 feet deep in the outfield of the baseball stadium.

"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 and indoor air quality coordinator Angela Vreeland.

Officials say the heating and cooling system at the 60-year-old school was in need of an overhaul, and switching to geothermal didn’t cost much more than a new HVAC system.

"There was no incremental cost difference for us to look at a geothermal system versus a traditional heating and cooling system," said Parent.

Parent says they’ve cut natural gas costs by at least 60 percent with the switch, but in extreme cold, they will still need to use the traditional boilers to supplement the heat supply to the school.

Two more schools in St. Paul will be breaking ground on geothermal technology before the end of the school year.