About Earth Source Heat

What is Earth Source Heat?

Earth Source Heat (ESH) is Cornell's version of a geothermal system that would use Earth’s internal heat to warm the Ithaca campus. Wells would be drilled into deep sedimentary rock layers or into deeper crystalline "basement rock" where the internal heat of the Earth is much hotter than comfortable air temperatures. Water circulated through the wells would return to the surface as hot water from which energy could be extracted to heat the campus. Cornell’s faculty and engineers are exploring a hybrid system that would couple ESH with biofuels to meet supplemental heating needs during sustained or extreme cold spells.

Why is Cornell exploring Earth Source Heat?

Earth Source Heat is Cornell’s version of a geothermal system that would use the Earth’s internal heat to warm the Ithaca campus.

Cornell scientists believe that the project holds potential that leads to a scalable solution that could be deployed across New York state and in other cold-climate regions around the world. It is widely agreed that there is enough natural heat within the earth to sustain us indefinitely, and drilling technology advancements allow access to this heat. While similar projects have succeeded in areas with geothermal potential on or near the surface, deep, direct-use geothermal systems have never been attempted in areas with the geological conditions present in upstate New York.

Why is the Cornell University Borehole Observatory necessary?

The borehole observatory is the next step toward Earth Source Heat and will enable researchers to study how much heat can be produced by deep geothermal energy.

While Cornell is driven by the need to reduce its fossil fuel footprint, the university is also keenly interested in understanding the impacts of technology choices. Accordingly, Cornell plans to drill a “test” or exploratory borehole that will provide a gating mechanism to ensure the safety and soundness of the project before moving forward with injection and production well pairs. This test borehole, or the Cornell University Borehole Observatory (CUBO), will allow Cornell to precisely understand the geologic conditions beneath Ithaca, allow the university to develop ongoing monitoring systems and help ensure that the methods used to extract heat from deep within the Earth do not create unacceptable risks or unintended impacts.

Cornell is committed to studying and addressing these issues in a thorough and transparent manner, developing best practices that will minimize risk and provide guidance for others who might implement this technology. If it is determined that the process could safely and effectively advance, the next step is to drill a demonstration well pair on the Ithaca campus. Eventually, the university would hope to begin a phased process to create a full-scale system capable of heating the entire Ithaca campus.

Cornell University Borehole Observatory Location

Map of Cornell University Borehole Observatory

CUBO will be located on Cornell-owned property near Palm Road in the Town of Ithaca. Drilling at the site will not disrupt plants, trees or sensitive ecosystems because the site is already an open gravel pad (a former parking lot). Additionally, electricity and water services are already available at this site, which also eliminates the need for new disruptive construction to connect those resources.

Project Timeline

  • 2030 (tent.)
    Full implementation. Campus is heated by ESH. Visitor center to allow local community and researchers to visit site and learn more about this new energy system.
  • 2024 (tent.)
    If successful Cornell would move to the next phase of discovery by drilling a demonstration well pair.
  • 2022
    Drill an exploratory borehole on campus.
  • 2020
    Cornell secures a $7.2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to fund exploratory research to help verify the feasibility of using a novel geothermal energy system to heat its campus buildings.
  • 2020
    Faculty host a workshop sponsored by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program to design experiments that could be incorporated into the university’s proposal to drill a 2.5-mile-deep borehole.
  • 2019
    Multiple phases of seismometer deployments and data analysis.
  • 2018
    Faculty use a vibroseis truck to conduct a survey of sub-terrain on campus will help determine the site of a future test well.
  • 2017-2019
    U.S. Department of Energy study on deep, direct use of geothermal energy and tracer analyses.
  • 2014-2017
    First deployment of seismometers with support from the U.S. Department of Energy and analysis of local seismic reflection grid.
  • 2010-2013
    Revisions of 3-state heat follow maps in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy.
  • 2009
    Earth Source Heat (ESH) is established as part of Cornell's Climate Action Plan (CAP), a key aspect of enabling Cornell to achieve carbon neutrality on its Ithaca campus.