About 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.

Cornell scientists believe that the project holds potential that leads to a scalable solution that could be deployed across New York state and around the 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 where 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.

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 like Earth Source Heat. 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 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 created 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.

Project Timeline

  • 2009
    Earth Source Heat (ESH) has been part of Cornell's Climate Action Plan (CAP) since 2009 as a potential means of moving toward carbon neutrality on campus by eliminating fossil fuels for campus heating.
  • 2010-2013
    Revisions of 3-state heat follow maps in partnership with U.S. Department of Energy
  • 2014-2017
    First deployment of seismometers with support from U.S. Department of Energy and analysis of local seismic reflection grid
  • 2017-2019
    U.S. Department of Energy study on deep, direct-use of geothermal energy and tracer analyses
  • 2018
    Faculty use a vibroseis truck to conduct a survey of sub-terrain on campus. The surveying will help to determine the site of a future test well.
  • 2019
    Multiple phases of seismometer deployments and data analysis.
  • 2020
    Faculty host a workshop sponsored by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, a nonprofit organization that promotes subterranean investigations, to design experiments that could be incorporated into the university’s proposal to drill a 2.5 mile-deep borehole.
  • 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.
  • 2021
    Cornell remains on track to drill an exploratory borehole in 2021.
  • 2024 (tent.)
    If successful Cornell would move to the next phase of discovery by drilling a demonstration well pair capable.
  • 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.