Oak Park and River Forest High School’s move to geothermal heat has hit a snag and will likely be delayed. After bids for installing a horizontal geothermal system underneath the fields just west of the high school came in 37 percent higher than projected the OPRF administration is recommending, and the school board seemed inclined to agree, that the school board reject the bids at their Jan 26 meeting and instead shift to a phased in switch to geothermal starting in 2024, rather than installing  geothermal this summer as had been planned.

By delaying the installation of any geothermal piping until after the new track is built, the new plan would result in the new shotput and discus area be dug up just after one year after it was installed to put in the geothermal piping. But the cost to dig up and then reinstall the shot put and discus area is not expected to be too onerous or expensive.

The lowest bid for installing geothermal system next summer came in at approximately $6.3 million. The projected costs had been about $4.6 million. The increased cost moved the breakeven point for geothermal to somewhere between 15 and 19 years, an increase from the previous estimate of 12 to 15 years.

The school board discussed the issue at its Jan. 13 Committee of the Whole meeting.

“I’m fine with rejecting the bids,” said school board member Ralph Martire.

School board president Tom Cofsky agreed.

“I think reevaluating this with a phased in approach makes sense,” Cofsky said.

Administrators had said that this summer would be an ideal time to install a below ground geothermal system because the west fields will be torn up to build a new outdoor track. But now they say the best approach is to install a geothermal system in stages beginning in 2024 with the installation of a vertical geothermal system between the west field and the mall with an estimated capacity of 595 tons, or enough to heat about 15 percent of the OPRF campus.

Geothermal uses pipes and pumps to move air from the earth’s core to the place that is to be heated or cooled.

The next stage of geothermal could be added a few years later, sometime between 2026 and 2028, underneath the Oak Park Stadium field. That could supply another 21 percent of the campus’s heating needs. More geothermal could be added underneath the new track and the south field in 2034, more than a decade away.

Installing geothermal in stages would allow for the installation of much more efficient vertical piping rather than the horizontal piping that was planned for this summer because of time constraints. Vertical piping can be up to eight times more efficient than horizontal piping.

“An eight to one difference in efficiency is sizable,” Cofsky said.

Vertical piping is generally more expensive to install.

Some board members expressed concern about the loss of potential federal incentives but they were told the subsidies for geothermal that were approved last year as part of the Inflation Reduction Act will last for 10 years. Federal subsidies could account for up to 40 percent of the installation cost. The cost of installing geothermal would likely increase because of inflation and Martire asked that a cost escalator be made part of the administration’s proposal.

Superintendent Greg Johnson said that a phased in approach to geothermal would be part of the school’s move toward a long term electrification plan which would eliminate natural gas as a heating source for the school.

Under the new phased in approach geothermal is projected to supply 85 percent of campus heating needs by 2034 and 100 percent if and when geothermal piping was installed under the new tennis courts at an unspecified time in the distant future.

The OPRF school board has established a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at OPRF by 45 percent of 2012 levels by 2030 and to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions at OPRF by 2050.

“This isn’t a death knell for the goals that are in that sustainability policy but it’s a curve ball,” Johnson said.

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