When administrators at fast-growing Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction first looked into using geothermal energy to heat and cool a new campus building in 2008, they weren’t sure if the projected cost savings would be realized fast enough to make the system feasible.
“We then asked the question — what if?” said Kent Marsh, CMU’s vice president of capital planning, sustainability and campus operations. “What if we connect the drill field that we’ve spent a million-and-a-half dollars on to another building? If we connected a classroom building to a residence hall, those two need heat at different times of the day.”
Today, CMU’s “geo-exchange” system heats and cools 70% of the 10,000-student campus, transferring heat between buildings and to and from the ground as necessary through a system of heat pumps, cooling towers and underground pipes.
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The system has helped CMU save $1.5 million a year in HVAC costs and cut greenhouse gas emissions from campus buildings by more than half. Gov. Jared Polis’ administration hails it as a model for universities and other developments across the country that are looking for ways to reduce emissions.
“It’s really a tremendous system,” said Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office. “For similar structures, like university campuses or large corporate campuses, where you have substantial land available where you can place those geo-exchange systems — these district heating and cooling systems really make a lot of sense.”
Toor and Marsh spoke at a virtual event hosted by the Western Governors’ Association on Thursday. Polis, who was elected chair of the organization earlier this year, has made geothermal energy the focus of a year-long WGA policy effort.
The “Heat Beneath Our Feet” initiative will “develop key findings on geothermal energy applications, land use planning, and market barriers in the West,” which will be presented next year in a report to the WGA’s annual meeting in Boulder.
Polis toured the CMU geo-exchange last month, kicking off his policy initiative with a video of a “geothermal shuffle” dance routine on social media, and touted the system as an innovative solution in his first debate with GOP gubernatorial challenger Heidi Ganahl.
“We support all kinds of energy here in the great state of Colorado,” Polis said. “It’s about making sure that we can have a sustainable energy future.”
’24/7 zero-carbon generation’
At a basic level, geothermal heating and cooling systems work by transferring heat between buildings and the ground. Like many clean-energy technologies, they come with significant upfront costs — mostly involving the drilling and installation of pipes that can run hundreds of feet underground — but are cheaper in the long run, especially when installed on a larger scale.
“If you look at that system and its performance over the years, you’re going to be well ahead,” said Marsh. “The payback when we started with just one drill field was about 20 years. We’ve since driven that down to 12 years.”
A small number of homes in Colorado and across the country use geothermal heat pumps — also known as ground-source heat pumps — for heating and cooling. A geothermal HVAC system at Colorado’s Capitol building was also completed in 2013.
Earlier this year, lawmakers in the General Assembly passed two pieces of legislation aimed at encouraging geothermal energy, including a new $12 million geothermal grant fund and a bill enabling what Toor called “the equivalent of community solar gardens” to foster larger-scale projects.
With a disruptive transition to clean energy underway globally, Toor noted the potential for geothermal energy to create job opportunities that help offset losses in other sectors, including the fossil fuel industry. Many geothermal projects require some of the same equipment and skills as oil and gas drilling.
“A lot of geothermal is really about how do you drill deep holes,” he said. “There are I think many opportunities for jobs for oil and gas workers as we move forward on the energy transition.”
Among the sponsors of Polis’ WGA initiative are several major players in the oil and gas industry, including Chevron, BP and Halliburton.
The largest geothermal projects of all are “utility-scale” developments that use heat to generate large amounts of electricity for the grid. Such projects require favorable geology to access heat from deep underground — 5,000 to 10,000 feet, rather than the 500 feet required by CMU’s geo-exchange.
The majority of suitable locations for utility-scale geothermal projects are in Western states, according to research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The first such project was completed in 1960, and today both California and Nevada generate significant amounts of electricity from geothermal plants.
Toor said that while wind and solar power are likely to remain the “workhorses of the energy transition,” generating 80% or more of future electricity needs, other technologies like geothermal will play a role in achieving fully zero-carbon grid.
“When it comes to that last 15% of cleaning up the grid, you do start to need other resources,” Toor said. “Geothermal really brings the ability to provide 24/7 zero-carbon generation.”
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