In regard to Bob Skolnik’s recap of OPRF’s decision to invest in a geothermal system (“OPRF invests in geothermal to heat, cool new athletic facility,” Sept. 14), the figures he cites concerning the costs and savings of a geothermal system are eye-raising to say the least, and I can only hope there is much more behind the board’s decision than just this.

There is no way to justify an outlay of an additional $2.65M in order to save $9,000/year in annual operating costs. If the school were to invest that outlay in risk-free treasuries, the interest income alone would be over 10 times the operating costs. In fact, with some conservative assumptions, an endowment of $2.65M could easily generate enough future revenue to cover operating costs and to purchase replacement boilers in perpetuity. Of course there may be other considerations, such as the additional cost of air conditioning, or the lifespan of a gas boiler vs. a geothermal heat pump, but if the figures cited in the article are anywhere near the ballpark, then on a cost basis, there is simply no time horizon over which geothermal could be competitive with gas or electric.

As for the environmental impacts, the carbon emission figures cited in the article are clearly wrong. I hope this is just an error on the part of the author because if the school is touting 70 million tons per year in greenhouse gas emission reductions, then they have no idea what they are talking about. Per-capita GHG emissions in the United States are around 15 tons per year. A geothermal system that saves 70 tons/year? Maybe, although even that sounds like a stretch. But unless the gas boiler in question emits twice as much CO2 as the entire city of Chicago, the annual savings of a geothermal system will be nowhere close to 70 million tons.

There is nothing wrong with a policy that takes environmental factors such as CO2 emissions into account, but that shouldn’t give the Board of Education a blank check. This isn’t a priceless work of art, or some grand plan for furthering world peace and social justice. Nor is this some status symbol OPRF needs to keep up with the Joneses in Elmhurst, Hinsdale, or wherever. It’s an HVAC system we’re talking about, and $2.65M is not chump-change.

If the board wishes to justify doubling its HVAC budget for a geothermal system, they should first take into account the opportunity cost of the additional outlay, provide a realistic estimate of GHG emissions reductions, and assign a reasonable figure (say, $50/ton) to the social costs of GHG emissions. The key word here is realistic: i.e., figures that are not straight out of the geothermal sales pamphlet. Hopefully, the author of this article has left out the details of a much more extensive cost-benefit analysis. But if the gist of the article is correct, then this is indeed a total waste of money.

Doran Swan
Oak Park

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