Colleges, including the UW-Madison, take advantage of geothermal heating, cooling

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

From an Associated Press article by Dinesh Ramde published in the Appleton Post-Crescent:

MILWAUKEE — While solar and wind power get most of the headlines, geothermal power is quietly gaining traction on college campuses where energy costs can siphon millions each year from the budget.

Schools from Wisconsin to New Mexico have geothermal projects in the works. There are 46 schools divvying up millions in federal stimulus dollars to advance technology that uses the temperature of the earth, rather than coal-fired power plants, to heat and cool buildings.

So far this year, the Department of Energy has announced $400 million in grants to advance geothermal projects like those under way on a handful of campuses.
Geothermal technology has been around for decades, it works and it is increasingly affordable. At colleges that must maintain dozens of large buildings, the savings are magnified.

Those involved in the decision to pursue geothermal technology say they wanted to use less coal-fired power, although the schools also had to save money to justify the move.

The technology is a natural fit for schools like Boise State that sit atop geothermal springs. The school recently announced it expects to save as much as $80,000 per year in heating costs by doing so, and even more as the project expands. Yet schools in the Midwest and East are also turning to geothermal power using a different type of technology.

A typical geothermal system works like this:
On a warm day, the system draws heat from a hot building and pumps it underground where the soil absorbs it. On a cold day the process reverses — the system extracts heat from the earth and returns it to the building.

The process is so efficient that even though the underground temperature remains about a constant 55 degrees, the system can be used to chill water to 45 degrees or heat it to 170 degrees.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, which spends about $50 million in climate-control costs per year, is incorporating a geothermal system in a building that opens next fall. The school should recover the $1.25 million cost in 15 to 20 years, said George Austin, the building project manager.

"If energy costs rise at a rapid rate, the payback (time) may be less than that," he said.