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Leadership committee to guide Earth Source Heat effort on campus

Media Contact

John Carberry

In March 2016, Provost Michael Kotlikoff tasked the Senior Leaders Climate Action Group (SLCAG) with analyzing viable energy alternatives for Cornell’s Ithaca campus in the effort to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035.

Six months later, the group produced a report, “Options for Achieving a Carbon Neutral Campus by 2035,” which laid out nine technology options for a more sustainable campus energy supply. Among them was Earth Source Heat (ESH), an enhanced geothermal energy project, which involves accessing the renewable heat stored in rock two to four miles below the Earth’s surface to sustainably heat the Ithaca campus.

The first step to advance this ambitious long-term project has been taken, with the formation of a leadership team led by Paul Streeter, vice president for budget and planning; Frederick Burgess, vice president for infrastructure, properties and planning; and Jefferson Tester, the Croll Fellow of Sustainable Energy Systems and chief scientist for ESH.

“Exploring new and emerging technologies to create research-based solutions to societal problems is at the heart of our institution’s mission,” said Provost Michael Kotlikoff. “The elimination of fossil fuel-dependent heating is a major challenge. If we are successful in implementing Earth Source Heat in this region, it will have far-reaching implications.”

Last spring, the SLCAG held a series of meetings on campus and in downtown Ithaca to discuss the options report and ESH project.

During the meetings, Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, explained that water would be circulated in a closed-loop system. It would be heated to near boiling in wells drilled to a depth of 10,000-15,000 feet, then returned to the surface, where it would pass through heat exchangers to heat other water, which then would distribute the heat to the campus through a district heating system.

“It’s exactly what we do with Lake Source Cooling but in reverse,” said Collins, who also serves as a SLCAG co-chair. “Cornell has experience demonstrating innovative technologies on its campus.”

Said Burgess: “Since arriving here at Cornell this summer, I’ve been intrigued by this project. It’s a unique collaboration between IPP and academia that brings together the expertise of both groups and builds on our successful track record of the Lake Source Cooling project.”

Tester, who has been involved with geothermal research and development for more than 30 years, said: “I am very pleased to be able to help move this project forward. Successfully demonstrating the use of geothermal heat to provide energy for Cornell’s buildings would be transformational for our region – providing a new option for the Northeast for delivering renewable, carbon-free energy to communities.”

Making ESH a reality will be a massive undertaking, requiring raising funds from external sources and developing new technologies. It will be implemented in stages, according to Collins. In Phase 1, scheduled for early 2018, Cornell will apply for permits, design and pick a site for a test well, and engage the community.

Also included in Phase 1, vibrating trucks will be used to actively generate sound waves that will be analyzed to characterize the subsurface geology in areas of interest. In addition to this active method of imaging, natural ground vibrations will be monitored to further characterize the structure of the subsurface. This part is likely to begin in April or May 2018.

Subsequent phases include raising funds to drill an exploratory well that would provide important geologic, thermal and seismic data at depths and temperatures of interest for geothermal energy systems. If the test well provides viable results, a third phase would seek to install an adjacent well and heat-exchange facility, creating a pilot-scale demonstration project. It is expected to take about six years to complete the first three phases.

The leadership team is in the process of engaging additional faculty, staff and students to help develop the initial plans.