University explores shift to Geothermal

By Mercer Stauch and Hannah Lee

The University is examining potential sustainability solutions to reach its standing goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Facilities Services is working with consulting group McKinstry to determine the potential efficacy of geothermal heating and cooling systems in campus buildings.

Currently, only Weyerhaeuser Hall is heated and cooled using geothermal energy; all other campus buildings burn natural gas, which contributes to global warming and creates health hazards that disproportionately harm communities of color. Facilities data from October 2021 to March 2022 — the months when the most natural gas is burned for heat — shows that, when combined, Regester, Trimble, Seward and Todd Phibbs use enough natural gas to fill nine Olympic swimming pools on average per month.

Geothermal energy takes advantage of the constant ground temperature, which is cooler than air temperature on hot days, and warmer on cold days. This trait provides a base-level water temperature, which is adjusted using electrical energy to the desired end-use temperature. It is considered a reliable renewable resource, and a scalable solution to the United States’ emissions problems. University campuses are one of the forefronts of this technology’s application; more than 100 campuses across the country have adopted it, and the federal government has begun developing incentive systems for broader implementation.

According to Director of Sustainability Lexi Brewer, there are multiple factors at play determining if and when the University of Puget Sound would make the switch. Any proposal would have to be approved by the Board of Trustees and the administration, as well as considering the response of the general student population. “We’re going to be doing this construction and that affects the look of campus or it disrupts campus life,” said Brewer. The process of installing geothermal heating and cooling systems involves drilling wells anywhere from 150 to 200 meters deep underground; the first buildings on campus that have been evaluated for this project are Todd-Phibbs, Seward, and Regester Halls, meaning the drilling would occur on South Quad. There’s also building functions to consider, says Brewer: “Do they operate slightly differently?”

Legal and fiscal factors are also being considered. The Washington State House recently passed House Bill 1589, which would prohibit Puget Sound Energy (PSE), the University’s utility provider, from constructing new buildings with natural gas heating and cooling. Completing large renovations on existing buildings and leaving natural gas systems intact would also be forbidden.

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act additionally stipulates that commercial installation of geothermal energy systems earns institutions a 30% tax credit, which, according to Brewer, would make the cost of geothermal installation comparable to the cost of installing or renovating natural gas systems. The Board of Trustees has been very receptive of that fact, as well as the fact that although geothermal construction involves a high upfront investment, the systems require less maintenance in the long run.

Tia Böttger, a junior Environmental Policy and Decision Making major, is working with her thesis seminar to provide “a communications plan and compilation of resources to the office of sustainability” about the geothermal switch, as she explained. Böttger emphasized the importance of “including students throughout the process and really using it as an educational opportunity.” Böttger and coursemates Nicole Mannix, Tatum Bunnett and Ethan Holst recognize that although the University may struggle to achieve its 0-by-2025 mission, geothermal could be the best way to eventually reach that goal.

Böttger also pointed out the potential boon for the University in terms of media coverage. If converted, the University of Puget Sound would be Washington’s first school to use geothermal energy at this scale. Other universities across the nation have implemented geothermal and made national news for the conversion, including Carleton College, Princeton University and Amherst College. For these schools, the switch has also massively furthered their climate pledges; at Smith College, the geothermal switch will cut 90% of the school’s emissions.

University authorities have yet to decide whether geothermal energy is part of the University’s path forward. Ultimately, a timeline for the proposed project on this campus is difficult to estimate; Brewer said that for projects of this size, the time scale is typically years. However, the process of securing funding and other preliminary action items may begin in as soon as two years. As for the perceived pitfall of having large-scale construction on campus, both Böttger and Brewer encouraged that it be thought of as a “short-term sacrifice” of campus aesthetics for “long-term gain” in sustainability and maintenance efficiency