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Parkway South High School To Power Some Of Its Energy From Underground Heat

A geothermal test well at Parkway South High School in Manchester, Missouri.
Erik Lueders| Parkway School District
Parkway South High School drilled a test geothermal energy well last year in preparation of installing a $2.4 million system to replace its aging cooling equipment.

Parkway South High School in Manchester this year will use geothermal energy, an uncommonly used form of renewable energy, to power its heating and cooling systems.

Parkway School District plans will soon install the geothermal units, which use heat from the earth. The $2.4 million system, which will replace the school’s aging chillers, was largely funded by a recent bond issue.

Replacing the chillers with cooling towers would have been less expensive than the geothermal units. But the geothermal units would save the school district $1.9 million over 30 years, said Erik Lueders, director of purchasing and sustainability at the Parkway School District.

“[Cooling towers] wouldn’t yield nearly as much the energy savings and on top of that, a conventional system needs to be replaced much more frequently,” Lueders said.

Installing the units also would help reduce the district’s annual operating budget, Lueders added.

“Instead of paying utilities that operating expense, we can put that money back into the classroom and back into educating students,” he said.

While geothermal energy has a lower environmental impact than coal, it’s not widely used mainly because of the large upfront cost of drilling and extraction from the earth. About 0.4 percent of electricity generation in the United States comes from geothermal energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Students from Parkway South High School learn about geothermal energy at the test well built near the school in 2018.
Credit Erik Leuders | Parkway School District
Students from Parkway South High School learn about geothermal energy at the test well built near the school in 2018.

Parkway South High School also is located near a field large enough to drill 120 wells 500 feet into the earth, Leuders said.

School district officials drilled a test well at Parkway South High School last year to see if installing the geothermal units was possible. It created a unique opportunity for students to learn about the science of energy, Lueders said.

“This was STEM in action,” Lueders said. “It’s great to see students becoming engaged and learning about the geology of Missouri’s karst topography, learning about thermodynamics and heat transfer of taking heat out of a building and storing it in the earth.”

He expects the geothermal units to be operational by November. Parkway South High School is the largest school and the biggest energy consumer in the Parkway School District.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.