Exploring Earth Source Heat
What is earth source heat?
Earth Source Heat is our version of an enhanced geothermal system that would use the internal heat of the Earth to warm our campus. Wells would be drilled into “basement rock”, where the internal heat of the earth keeps temperatures near or above the boiling point of water. Water circulated through the wells returns to the surface as hot water for campus heating and potential electricity production.
We believe that the project holds the potential for a research-driven solution, that if proven viable could lead to a scalable solution globally, makes exploration of this technology an ideal candidate for our campus. While Earth Source Heat is extraordinarily promising, this approach has not been pursued in our region and remains one of uncertain costs and ultimate feasibility.
Why is Cornell exploring earth source heat?
Earth Source Heat has been a part of Cornell’s Climate Action Plan since 2009 as a means of moving toward carbon neutrality on campus by eliminating fossil fuels for campus heating.
It is widely agreed that there is enough natural heat within the Earth to sustain us indefinitely, and drilling technology advancements mean that we can certainly reach this heat. However, several important technical details and questions remain—ESH is ripe for research led by a multidisciplinary institution like Cornell.
Cornell cannot reach climate neutrality without eliminating the fossil fuels that are used to heat campus, and there are very few potential technologies (utilizing the resources we have here in Ithaca) to do so. While Cornell is ultimately interested in reducing our fossil-fuel footprint, we are also keenly interested in understanding the impacts of technology choices like earth source heat and helping to ensure that the methods used to extract heat from deep in the earth do not create unacceptable risks or impacts.
What is the goal for earth source heat?
The long-term goal of Earth Source Heat is to create a new regional energy supply to heat our campus using only natural, renewable resources. However, as exciting as the initial discussion and planning phases may be, this project is years – possibly a decade or more – in the making. Each step must be balanced with sound research, necessary permits, community engagement and funding. If successful, would serve as an exciting demonstration project for other communities seeking renewable, sustainable forms of energy.
Earth source heat provides not only an ideal opportunity to conduct research and serve as a demonstration project for others seeking sustainable energy approaches, but also an extraordinary prospect to develop a new sustainable energy industry across New York State. While similar projects have been done in other areas, this type of project has never been attempted at a location with the conditions we have here in upstate New York.
Cornell is uniquely positioned to explore ESH
Sustainability is a signature area of excellence for Cornell. Faculty research and teaching, student engagement, and staff innovation are critical to our success in solving complex sustainability problems. As such, Cornell has significant in-house faculty expertise in the study and development of renewable energy systems. The College of Engineering, home to the Energy Institute and more than 75 faculty doing frontier energy research in: traditional energy sources, renewable energy sources, and management of energy such as smart grids and the built environment.
What stage is the project in?
Faculty, students and engineers have started the initial planning, including research to better understand the rock formations beneath campus. These efforts are being led by some of the premier experts in geology, seismicity and renewable energy production in the world.
How will we manage peak loads?
Earth source heat would be optimally sized to deliver the majority of heat needed for campus. However, during very cold weather, an energy system using biomass would be used to supply the additional heating needs of campus. Using biomass for the infrequent peak heating loads would be far more efficient than over-sizing ESH. This system would utilize local biomass resources (wood or non-food energy crops) as an energy source. If the biomass is converted to a gas, it could be used in a retooled facility such as our combined heat and power plant.