Innovative Heating And Cooling Projects Prove The Benefits Of Geothermal

A few months ago, I reported on the largest geothermal heat pump project in the United States currently under construction at Ball State University in Indiana. The project is a breakthrough for the geothermal heat pump industry for a couple reasons. First, its massive size. Second, it is extremely economical and shows that geothermal heat pumps are ready for district heating and cooling applications.

To give you a sense of the size, the project is a 10,000 ton system, which is equivalent to 35 megawatts of power. That’s large enough to heat and cool 47 buildings — replacing four old, dirty coal-fired boilers. The project will also help create 2,300 direct and indirect jobs throughout the construction period.

The project will cost $60 million dollars, which equals $1.71 per watt of power, beating the cost of utility-scale solar projects. Utility-scale solar PV projects have an average installed cost of $4.69 according to the Open PV Project in November 2012; although this number if falling.

Geothermal is a great technology because it’s cheap and because it’s extremely energy dense, meaning it produces a large amount of valuable energy in a small amount of space.

A 35 MW solar PV project would generate roughly $3.8 million worth of electricity every year in Indiana and would likely cost around $105 million dollars to build. In contrast, the 35 MW geothermal project will generate $2 million dollars worth energy per year. The project is also being installed under parking lots and and sports fields, so it will take no additional room on campus. An equivalent 35MW solar PV facility would take up about 140 acres.

Those are some of the very clear benefits to geothermal that don’t get a lot of attention.

I want to follow up on the Ball State project with a quick snapshot of two other great geothermal projects that are helping drive adoption of this valuable and under-appreciated technology.

The first is a community-scale geothermal project in Massachusetts. We’ve heard a lot about community-scale solar PV projects, but community geothermal is also starting to emerge. New England Renewable Energy Systems has installed a community geothermal project in Provincetown, Massachusetts that uses a single loop field to heat and cool ten homes. The system has 19 vertical bores that supply 44 tons of geothermal heat pumps, or about 154 kilowatts of capacity. The challenge for community-scale geothermal, like community-scale renewables generally, is coordinating the investment among homeowners. But the benefit is clear: Homeowners participating in the program can pool their resources with others and save about $2,000 per year in heating costs from avoiding burning oil.

The second notable geothermal project is at Missouri University of Science and Technology which was designed by MEP Associates, the same firm that designed the Ball State project. Missouri S&T is currently constructing a 6,000 ton geothermal system that will heat and cool 2.17 million square feet. That is a huge project equivalent to about 21 MW of power capacity. Like Ball State, the project is extremely economical; the system costs $32.4 million dollars, or about $1.54 per watt.

The project has other notable benefits: it will reduce the whole campus’s energy spend by 50 percent, it will save $1 million dollars per year annually, it will eliminate $26 million dollars in deferred maintenance costs for the aging power plants it is replacing, and it will save the university’s water consumption 8 million gallons per year.

Here’s a video about the project:

Geothermal for district heating and cooling is a great investment for large commercial entities and public institutions. As these projects show, it has clear benefits that some other technologies can’t provide. It’s time to give geothermal heat pumps some due credit.

Chris Williams is the Chief Marketing Officer for HeatSpring Learning Institute a national renewable energy training company, Chairman of the Government Relations Committee forNEGPA and an advisor to Ground Energy Support, a provider of real time geothermal heat pump monitoring technology.