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By: Frank Jossi
A small but growing list of U.S. colleges and universities are dusting off a centuries-old technology to help meet their ambitious climate goals.
Carleton College, a small, private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota, is the latest to trade fossil-fueled steam heat for geothermal district energy as it aims to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or sooner.
Completed last summer, the $41 million project is Minnesota’s first geothermal district energy system and one of only about two dozen nationwide. They vary in design but typically consist of a network of pipes and heat pumps that tap into steady, subterranean temperatures to heat and cool buildings on the surface.
Most U.S. geothermal district energy systems were built more than 30 years ago amid rising oil and gas prices in the 1970s and 1980s, but the technology is seeing a resurgence today on college campuses as schools look for tools to help them follow through on climate commitments.
“I think it is one of the only scalable solutions for creating a low-carbon campus,” said Lindsey Olsen, an associate vice president and senior mechanical engineer for Salas O’Brien. The California-based engineering and facility planning firm has worked with Carleton College and others on geothermal projects.
Geothermal energy has been used for district heating for over a century in the United States. In Europe, the systems date back to ancient Rome. The oldest still in operation was installed at Chaudes Aigues in France in 1330.
Adoption has been significant in Europe — France, Germany and Iceland are the leaders — but a market has never fully developed in the United States. A 2021 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory cited the availability of cheap natural gas, a lack of government incentives, and steep upfront costs as key factors. The U.S. geothermal district heating sector has been “relatively stagnant since the 1980s, with only four new installations over the past two decades,” the report said.
One emerging exception is higher education. “University and college campuses are currently leading the charge in pursuit of low-carbon district energy options as a result of aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction goals (often 100%) within the next 15 to 30 years,” the report says.
The report lists Carleton College, Princeton University, and Ball State University among the schools installing or expanding geothermal district energy systems. Others include Miami of Ohio, Oberlin, Grinnell, Wheaton, and Amherst colleges.
One of the largest, Princeton’s geothermal system will replace steam generation in more than 180 buildings, some built in the 1700s. Cornell is developing a 10,000-foot-deep “bore hole observatory” where scientists will study strategies for capturing the earth’s heat before installing a geothermal system.
Read the full article, Colleges See Untapped Potential in Geothermal District Energy Systems, on Energy News Network.