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With test-wells across campus, Brown University explores geothermal energy as renewable heat source

By District Energy posted 11-08-2023 06:00


Brown University


As part of its pledge to reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2040, Brown University is exploring the feasibility of using geothermal energy as the primary source of heat for its buildings in Providence’s College Hill and Jewelry District neighborhoods.

Over the past month, construction crews working with Brown’s Office of Sustainability and Resiliency and Division of Facilities Management drilled about 1,000 feet into the ground at three different sites to install test-wells that will help determine the viability of using geothermal heating and cooling across campus.

The effort marks the deepest holes ever drilled on campus and will show how many wells — and to what depth — Brown would need to drill to move away from fossil fuel combustion to a highly efficient geothermal system, which would work by extracting heat from the Earth in the winter and pumping waste heat from air conditioning back into it during the summer. The system, in combination with other efficiency measures, would help the University meet decarbonization goals outlined in its strategic plan for sustainability.

In recent years, geothermal energy has gained traction worldwide as a source of emissions reductions. There are many types of heating systems based on geothermal energy, but the idea Brown is exploring would use the ground beneath the Earth as storage for heat in the summer and then as a source for it in colder months.

In the summer, when cooling is needed, waste heat from chillers and air conditioners would heat water (or another coolant), and that water would be pumped into a closed U-shaped pipe in the ground, heating the rocks in the depths beneath Brown’s campus. In the winter, when heat is needed, cool water would be pumped to that depth, where it would be warmed by the previous summer's waste heat and brought back to the surface to heat buildings across campus.

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