image of Cornell UniversityCornell University is participating in a groundbreaking clean energy project, referred to as “Earth Source Heat”, to establish one of the most advanced geothermal HVAC systems in the country. The ambitious plan to heat the 745-acre Ithaca campus using this innovative energy system could potentially eliminate an estimated 82,000 metric tons of carbon from its annual footprint. If the project is successful, “Earth Source Heat” will serve as a new scalable model for using this sustainable energy source around the world.

Cornell’s faculty includes world-leading energy and sustainability researchers and expert facilities engineers, making the prestigious university perfectly poised to explore the potential of geothermal energy systems. The university’s leadership is considering the Earth Source Heat project a major strategy to help meet the carbon emission reduction goals laid out in their 2009 Climate Action Plan.

Since that time Cornell’s emissions have already been reduced by over 30 percent through several clean energy initiatives, but with the Earth Source Heat project an additional 38 percent of the university’s emissions could potentially be eliminated!

The first step for Cornell’s largest energy project yet will be a small-scale demonstration installation to tap into the Earth’s heat stores by reaching into the basement rock over two miles under the surface. Water will then be circulated through the rock in a closed loop before being pumped back up to the surface to supply heat to the campus.

If this demonstration project is proven successful, Cornell will consider installing a full-scale geothermal heating and cooling system to heat most of the campus buildings. In the event of particularly cold weather, the system would be supplemented with heat from a biomass gasification center. Using local biomass supplies such as nonfood crops would provide a second source of clean energy, and would also be more efficient than maximizing the geothermal system’s size to handle excessive heating requirements.

Beyond significantly reducing carbon emissions with a new sustainable energy source, Cornell’s ultimate goal will be to advance new research and apply the lessons learned during the Earth Source Heat efforts to create a scalable new model for enhanced geothermal energy.  Indeed, the impact of expanding the use of this clean energy source in the United States alone could be unprecedented.

According to a 2006 study chaired by Jeff Tester, Director of the Energy Institute at Cornell and one of the faculty leaders of the Earth Source Heat project, using enhanced-geothermal systems over the next 50 years could provide the U.S. with more than 100 gigawatts of electric energy, or approximately 10 percent of the country’s overall electric capacity today! However, to extend geothermal heating and cooling systems beyond the western U.S. and make them economically viable, new enhanced geothermal district heating strategies must first be pioneered and thoroughly evaluated.

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