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Seattle Public Schools' climate solution captures $7.5M from White House

Bellamy Pailthorp
Richard Best from Seattle Public Schools shows off a new ballfield at Kimball Elementary. Beneath the turf are geothermal wells that are used to heat and cool the building, similar to how a home heat pump works. The district started using geothermal H-VAC systems in 2006. Now, nearly a third of its buildings use them.

Seattle is leading the nation in geothermal heating and cooling for its public schools. Seattle Public Schools' goal is to be fossil-free by 2040. Its accomplishments were recently showcased during a Summit for Sustainable and Healthy K-12 Schools and Grounds at the White House.

Richard Best represented the school district at the summit and hosted KNKX for a tour of one of the new schools using this climate-friendly system.  

He showed us around at Kimball Elementary in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Kids were running around at lunchtime and playing flag football outside, their high-pitched screams piercing the air, mixed in with the sounds of busy air traffic overhead.

The new school building just opened in the fall of 2023. Beneath the ballfields, there’s a network of underground pipes connected to wells. Best, the district’s director of capital projects and planning, said the system is like a really large home heat pump.

The ground temperatures remain constant, pretty much throughout the year. And so you're able to extract heat in the wintertime. And then you’re able to extract cooling in the summertime. And it keeps your building very comfortable, as you can see here,” he said.

We were sitting at child-sized desks and chairs in an empty classroom.

It was remarkably cool inside, even after a hot weekend. The air felt soft and calming, and it was really quiet – so quiet, you couldn't be sure it was working.  

“Correct. We have lots of teachers that make that comment,” Best said. “They always question if the HVAC system is on.”

When that happens, his colleague Mike Kennedy might be the guy to take a look. He said he sometimes has to hold his ear up to the intake grille near the floor to make sure it’s working. Kennedy has 30 years of experience with the district, using many different HVAC systems. But this is so simple — it’s kind of like magic, he said.

A man in jeans and a green polo shirt in a well-lit room filled with white pipes with no windows.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Mike Kennedy, who has 30 years of experience with the school district, shows where the tanks for the HVAC system are located.

“You bring 100% fresh outside air in low, let it ‘pillow out’ on the floor or right about where you sit,” he said, indicating the tiny desks. “And as the air warms up, it flows up to the ceiling and gets pulled back to the machine, extracts all the heat out of it, and puts it back into the classroom again.”

Seattle Public Schools now has 19 school buildings using geothermal wells for heating and cooling. Four more are under construction. The district is about to get a check for $7.5 million from the IRS, reimbursing the Seattle schools for about a third of last year’s expenses for this climate-friendly technology. They’re calling it “a game changer” because the start-up costs are the thing that typically keeps systems like this from being built; once they’re up and running, the operating and maintenance costs are much lower.

But what really motivates both of these guys, they said, is the kids.

“Whether it's been renovated or brand new, just seeing the excitement and the enthusiasm they have,” he said. “It's why I do what I've done for so many years.”

It’s also helpful for teachers and students learning about the climate crisis to have a fossil-free solution inside their buildings every day.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to