Oak Park and River Forest High School is seen on Monday, Sept. 27, on Lake Street in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

How green does Oak Park and River Forest High School want to be? And at what price? That’s what the OPRF District 200 Board of Education will have to decide in the coming weeks.

The school board is planning to vote at its Sept. 8 meeting whether to go with a geothermal heating and cooling system with a heat pump for its Project 2 capital plan to build a new four story athletics and physical education wing at the southeast portion of the current building. Next summer OPRF is planning to tear up its current baseball and softball fields to build a new 400-meter track. If the board chooses the geothermal option, that would be the time to bore into the ground and install 133,000 feet of linear pipe underground  because that is when the fields are expected to be torn up to build the new track.

The district’s architects estimate that geothermal could supply all of the cooling needs of the Project 2 space and 64 percent of its heating needs. The 36 percent of the heating requirements not supplied by geothermal would be filled by purchasing green electricity. Geothermal transfers the relatively constant temperature from the earth’s core to heat and cool a building and is the most efficient and greenest way to heat and cool a building. However, it also, at least at OPRF, would be, in the short term, the most expensive option.

According to projections from the district’s architects geothermal would cost approximately $4.2 million while conventional natural gas boilers would cost $2.65 million and all electric boilers cost $2.45 million. The cost of installing a geothermal system in this phase of the capital project could range from $4.1 million to $4.6 million according to a report prepared for the board.

The architects told the school board at its Aug. 25 meeting that natural gas would have the lowest operating costs. They estimated that the annual operating costs of a natural gas system would be about $227,000 compared to about $309,000 for geothermal and about $399,000 for electric boilers.

However, a representative from the Oak Park Climate Action Network told the board in the public comment portion of the meeting that OPCAN believes the architect’s estimates of the cost of geothermal is too high.

“We believe that the initial costs and operating cost of geothermal may be inflated in the initial numbers you have so we’re encouraging the board to get a second opinion to verify the accuracy given that this is such an important decision,” said Mona Blaber of OPCAN.

Architect Alyson Sternquist said she hopes the geothermal cost estimate is too high but that a geothermal contractor visited OPRF and was concerned about possible problems and complexities that would raise the cost.

“I hope they are too high,” Sternquist said of the geothermal estimates.

Blaber said OPCAN believes the operating costs of geothermal would be similar to the operating costs of natural gas boilers.

Geothermal emits no greenhouse gases. Electric heating and cooling also emit no greenhouse gases on site. The architects estimated that natural gas boilers would emit approximately 890,000 pounds of carbon dioxide which contributes to global warming.

“We can’t afford to keep ourselves tied to and relying on fossil fuel,” Blaber said.

Regardless of which option the board chooses it is also considering installing solar panels on the roof of the new section to produce solar generated electricity. Purchasing offsite solar generated electricity is another option.

“We have to flesh out the build versus buy option on solar,” said District 200 school board president Tom Cofsky.

Board member Mary Anne Mohanraj was enthusiastic about the geothermal option.

Board members wanted to find out more about possible incentives in the recently passed federal Inflation Reduction Act to promote green technologies such as geothermal.

“We’ve got to get a handle on what they are,” Cofsky said. “There’s a lot of hands grabbing at that money.”

Just over $2.8 million in geothermal incentives and subsidies have already been factored into the architect’s cost estimates.

The earliest the Project 2 renovation would take place is the summer of 2024.

With the new track taking up space where the baseball and softball fields are now those fields would be moved south of Lake Steet. A baseball field, which could also be used as a multipurpose field would be built on the south field now used by the field hockey team. A new softball field would be built in conjunction with the Park District of Oak Park at Ridgeland Common.

OPRF does not currently have a regulation 400-meter track and a long-term lease with Concordia University that allowed OPRF track teams to use the track at Concordia is expiring.

The new track and new field facilities along with other field work is estimated to cost $15.7 million. At the Aug. 25 meeting the school board unanimously voted to put the track and fields project out to bid. The administration will not make a recommendation to the board whether to pursue the project until it gets bids for the project.

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