Universities swapping energy sources to geothermal now a growing trend

The "power of the Earth" provides some of the most sustainable energy options.

March 1, 2024, 2:25 PM

Some of the most established universities in the country are switching to sustainable energy to power their campuses in an effort to meet climate goals.

Bard College, a private liberal arts college in New York's Hudson Valley, has broken ground on a state-of-the-art geothermal heating and cooling system that will replace the decaying oil system that was previously powering the Charles P. Stevenson Jr, Library, the school announced earlier this week.

It is one of many colleges utilizing ground geothermal source technology that installs pumps in the ground that then circulates a temperature-adjusted fluid to the surface using a series of pipes in a closed-loop system.

Geothermal energy is "one of the oldest forms of energy in the book," previously used by the Romans, Native Americans and ancient Chinese civilizations, Caitlin Grady, an assistant professor of engineering management and systems at George Washington University, told ABC News. The energy is also a prime example of using the planet's natural resources to generate power, she said.

"You're talking about using gravity and water to power buildings ... using what the Earth has to offer for free," Grady said.

PHOTO: Bard College in Dutchess County, N.Y., Nov. 14, 2021.
Bard College in Dutchess County, N.Y., Nov. 14, 2021.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Bard's newest project will consist of 50 boreholes drilled to a depth of 500 feet, which will contain the geothermal loops and thermally enhanced grout, according to Brightcore.

The school, founded in 1860, has been incorporating geothermal energy into its new buildings since the 1980s. But this is the first time a legacy building -- previously powered by oil-fire boiler plant and conventional chiller system -- will be retrofit for geothermal energy.

"Our default is now geothermal," Mark Primoff, associate vice president of communications for Bard College, told ABC News.

The school decided to transform the library's power system because the existing oil field system was reaching the end of its lifetime, Primoff said.

"We refer to that as being 'end of useful life,'" Dave Hermantin, senior vice president of Brightcore Energy's geothermal division, told ABC News. "They needed a quick fix."

PHOTO: The construction of a geothermal system to power the Charles P. Stevenson Jr, Library at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, is underway.
The construction of a geothermal system to power the Charles P. Stevenson Jr, Library at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, is underway.
Brightcore Energy

The new system will completely eliminate the building's use of fossil fuels, Hermantin said. The library was previously using about 15,000 gallons of oil per year, Primoff said.

"Oil is one of the most carbon intensive sources we have," Grady said. "So moving from oil to geothermal is a huge savings in greenhouse gas reduction."

Students and faculty shouldn't notice any changes within the building, other than it may seem a bit quieter in the absence of a noisy exhaust coming from the oil field system, Primoff added.

About 40% of Bard's campus utilizes geothermal energy, according to the school, which has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. Other initiatives include the use of solar energy and an on-campus farm that provides produce to the campus centers, Primoff said.

"We're in great shape to meeting that goal," Primoff said.

The project matches a growing trend among college campuses that have set ambitious goals to become net-zero by 2030 or 2035, Grady said.

PHOTO: Yale University campus, April 4, 2015, New Haven, Conn.
Yale University campus, April 4, 2015, New Haven, Conn.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Yale University is adding about half a million square feet to its physics, science and engineering complex, which has prompted a geothermal project that will power about 2 million square feet of space, replacing its steam infrastructure, Hermantin said.

Brightcore also has projects in the works at Columbia University, Princeton University, Brown University, setting a sustainable example for other schools to follow.

"The Ivies, when they do something, everyone kind of listens in that space," Hermantin said. "So we've been speaking to several universities about their decarbonization plans, and we're forecasting that there's going to be work in this particular space for at least the next 10 years."

The Northeast is particularly suitable for this type of geothermal system because the average ground temperature is about 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which allows for up to three times more efficient energy production than heat pumps that source from air, Hermantin said. Consequently, a lot of universities are located in areas that are well suited for geothermal, Grady said.

Geothermal systems, while expensive to install, use a combination of technologies that generally give them a longer expected useful life -- up to 100 years, Hermantin said. Once the initial infrastructure is in place, the main cost going forward is maintaining the pipe system, Grady said.

"So it's a technology that, if it's installed now, it'll likely survive to a point where there's just a whole new type of technology a century from now," he said.

Bard expects the system, which cost $1 million to construct, result in an immediate savings of $60,000 per year in oil costs, Primoff said, adding that the school will likely retrofit more legacy buildings in the future to be powered by geothermal energy.

"Seeing the passion that the Bard College community has for conservation and sustainability firsthand is so encouraging and admirable," Mike Richter, president of Brightcore Energy, said in a statement, "It’s a perfect complement to the natural beauty of their Hudson Valley campus."

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