The University drilled geothermal wells in three locations in September and October to explore whether geothermal heating could help the University meet its decarbonization goals, according to a Nov. 2 press release.
The wells, consisting of boreholes ranging from 860 to 1000 feet of depth, were drilled in parking lots near Brown’s athletics complex and Barus and Holley, as well as at the future location of the integrated life sciences building in the Jewelry District, according to the press release.
According to the press release, the below-ground wells will help the University gauge the potential geothermal properties of the chosen sites, the quantity and depth of wells that would be installed and how expensive a campus-wide geothermal integration might be.
It will also help the University understand how geothermal compares to other heating options, such as air source heat pumps, wrote Stephen Porder, associate provost for sustainability, in an email to The Herald.
If the University proceeds with geothermal energy — the feasibility of which is anticipated to be determined by 2024, based on results from the test wells — hundreds of wells would likely be added “at or near the current test sites” over the span of a “multi-year effort,” according to the press release.
The project could help implement a portion of Brown’s Sustainability Strategic Plan, which calls for the University to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040.
Porder wrote that geothermal energy could play a crucial role in decarbonizing heating in campus buildings by storing heat through the year that is then used in the winter.
Over the course of the year, “we can extract heat” from the wells “in the winter, and inject heat in the summer,” Porder wrote.
In the summer, waste heat from air conditioners and chillers would heat water or a different coolant, in turn pumped into geothermal wells. That liquid will heat up the surrounding rock. In colder seasons, cool liquid will be pumped to the wells. After being warmed by the hot rock, the water would heat buildings as it returned to the surface, he added.
Using geothermal heat pumps to warm much of campus may double the University’s electricity use, according to Brown’s Sustainability and Resiliency website. But Porder indicated that the University would ensure that any extra energy needed to sustain the heat pumps would be procured from renewable sources.
He added that buildings may need to be retrofitted to accommodate the heat pumps.
“It is safe to say the implementation strategy will involve renovations to existing utilities infrastructure and facilities,” wrote Paul Dietel, Facilities Management’s assistant vice president for planning, design and construction, in an email to The Herald — emphasizing that the exploration is in its “beginning stages.”
“Facilities Management will plan carefully to minimize any … disruptions, working in buildings typically in summer months,” Dietel wrote. In the summer, building occupancy is lower and campus has “no demand for heating.”
Jeff Tester, professor of sustainable energy systems at Cornell, described Brown’s process as “very logical.”
“I think they are being cautious about what’s down there and trying to do careful analysis, which I think is important,” he said.
“The good thing about geothermal heat pumps is that we have a lot of knowledge (of) how much they cost, and by doing a few test wells, you can tell what the performance would be like,” he explained. “But it’s going to be a big deal if you’re going to have to do the whole campus.”
He added that the University should consider student and community involvement as it considers geothermal energy.
“I would think (community members) would all be curious as well as worried that you might do something bad for them,” he said.
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When asked about community engagement, Porder wrote that “if we proceed with geothermal or any other major construction plan we always work with the community on campus and beyond to minimize disruptions.”
Other colleges have made similar transitions, Tester said. Indiana’s Ball State University converted to a geothermal system for heating and cooling between 2009 and 2014. According to a report by Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, Ball State installed about 3,400 geothermal wells and the associated infrastructure between 2009 and 2014, at a cost of $83 million. According to the report, the installation saves the campus more than $2 million annually — and halved its carbon emissions.
“We know where we need to get — zero emissions,” Porder wrote. “Geothermal wells are one potential path to our goal, and these test wells will tell us how far to go down this path.”