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Kansas Town Builds A Clean Energy Field of Dreams

Rocky Kistner

Posted July 13, 2011

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School superintendent Darin Headrick remembers the day the massive 200 mile-an-hour tornado struck his small Kansas community four years ago. His school—along with 95 percent of the town—was blown into a Hiroshima-like pile of rubble by the monster twister. Fortunately the school wasn’t in session at the time, although 11 people lost their lives in the small town. But he wondered what kind of future lay ahead for his students?

It didn’t take long to come up with an answer. Thanks to smart community thinking and a rapid response from government and corporate leaders, Darin and other town officials came up with a revolutionary rebuilding plan based on a key concept: sustainability. Darin took a trip to other communities and worked closely with the National Renewable Energy Lab to create something that had never been created; a school built with state of the art energy efficient technology that incorporated the openness and welcoming spirit of the prairie.

Darin says it was essential to build a school that would attract students and families from other areas as well. That, they believed, was crucial to the town's survival. “Most of the small towns around here are dying," Darin says. "We knew that if we built the school back in the same way, it would just increase the chances we would end up like all the others." the same way. We didn’t just want to survive, we wanted to thrive.”

So Darin and town residents participated in hundreds of meetings, pulling in students to add their input into the school’s design. They participated in an innovative concept called the Public Square, where local businesses, residents, students and government officials all interacted through a network of meetings that included ideas from the whole community.

It wasn't just about inclusiveness, Darin says, it was about creating something lasting and sustainable, something students and parents would be proud to be a part of long into the future. “We thought it was very important that the voices of the students be heard. This was a great opportunity to get their input into what was taking place. As a community we felt it didn’t matter so much what the final decision was, just as long as we got everyone involved. Communications was the key.”

The results of those efforts are stunning. The modern yet unpretentious one-story K-12 school blends in easily with the landscape and has room for 340 students, but you would hardly know it walking the halls. The open architecture embraces a maximum amount of natural light, a plentiful commodity on the prairie. Efficient artificial lighting and renewable energy sources have helped cut energy costs in half, thanks to the school's 50 kilowatt Endurance wind turbine and 97 geothermal wells that produce energy for heating and cooling. Giant outdoor cisterns collect rain water and provide irrigation water for parched grass and plants around the school.


Darin Headrick and school interior   Photos: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

The school, like other major buildings in town, has been built to Platinum LEED standards, the highest efficiency rating in the world. Building materials were recycled and waste was kept to a minimum; Darin says only three dumpsters of construction trash were thrown away after the 130,000 foot school was complete. For all these efforts, officials believe all costs of construction and renewable energy systems will provide major dividends  in the future. “Inefficient buildings are such a huge cost,” Darin says. “In other schools we end up spending more money on utilities than we do on computers and books. This way, we provide more cash for kids and stop sending it to the utilities.”

Of course, the Greensburg school is just one of many homes and businesses in town that features innovative energy saving features. A leader in this effort is Daniel Wallach, who helped spearhead Greenburg's rebuilding efforts and runs an energy efficiency ecotourism and home building nonprofit called GreenTown. Daniel came up with the initial concept paper to rebuild the town as a model green community, a place that would combine sustainable traditions of the past with the high-tech energy efficient designs of the future.

The political timing couldn’t have been better. Former Kansas Gov Kathleen Sebelius, now Obama’s HHS Secretary, and President George W. Bush, then smarting from Hurricane Katrina's criticism, eagerly embraced the community’s desire to rebuild using new clean energy technology. It was a political perfect storm, Daniel says, an unusual moment where liberal and conservative forces came together to create something revolutionary.

“The stars really aligned. We really did see it as an opportunity to establish this as a model that could be scaled to other communities. It was a cultural zeitgeist moment where the ripples and impacts could be felt in many places beyond the town. The media coverage was extraordinary and there was tremendous generosity and compassion generated by the enormous devastation to the community. It became a grass roots movement for sustainability. We’ve gone from one of the most conservative monolithic agricultural communities and embraced technologies like wind power. Where is there more success than that?”

School superintendent Darin Headrick agrees. Now, he and his students take visitors from all over the world on tours of their remarkable school. Nearly every day, groups ranging from Italian engineers to architects and students across the US come to see the super efficient school on the prairie. All hope they take back new ideas, sewing the seeds of green tech growth far and wide.  

Wind farm outside Greensburg, KS                    Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Recently, Darin’s been in touch with the tornado ravaged communities of Tuscaloosa, AL, and Joplin, MO. School officials and business leaders there are eager to learn about the amazing recovery efforts in Greensburg. But Darin says what makes him feel especially good is that local school enrollment is continuing to climb as families are eager to send their kids to a school built with the latest high-tech energy-efficient design.

It’s all part of an amazing green tech revolution that’s sprung up in America’s heartland. The people of Greensburg are proud to be small-town energy-efficient pioneers, building a sustainable future for the world to admire and emulate. After all, the people of Greensburg built their American dream out of the desolate grasslands of the prairie. Building a new clean energy community in the corn and wheat fields of Kansas is not all that different.

Build it and they will come, folks here say. And with each passing day, they are.

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