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February 28, 2012

Geothermal Study Provides Promise for Your Campus

This article originally appeared on the Sierra Student Coalition's blog. Written by Suhail Barot and Emily Cross, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champagne.


In October, Google released the results of a nearly half a million dollar grant to the Southern Methodist University (SMU) Geothermal Lab, creating the most detailed geothermal maps to date. Not only did the researchers add tens of thousands of new thermal data points, but it also painted a very different picture of the potential for this clean energy that colleges nationwide can access.

The maps developed by SMU depict the heat flow of the geology in North America. When heat flows through the ground, like in water and rocks, it is possible to tap into that energy. Geothermal power plants work like normal power plants – except without burning any fuels. After piping down into the earth to capture hot water and steam, plants use this energy to push a turbine that is connected to a generator.

So what’s so special about the maps that Google commissioned? Using previously unattainable data and looking at the energy flow in a more detailed manner, researchers at SMU developed a heat flow map that shows potential in areas that were once considered inaccessible. It looked at energy that could be accessed with new technologies, like tapping into heat deep below ground, even those with relatively low temperatures.

According to the SMU laboratory, only .3% of the energy we currently produce comes from geothermal energy, which barely makes a dent in getting our country off of fossil fuels. But the results of this study show that geothermal could provide three times the total energy production in the United States.

That offers huge possibilities for more projects to be developed on campuses nationwide. According to a report on campus geothermal projects by the National Wildlife Federation, two and four-year colleges collectively could not only dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but also save a whopping $2-7 billion dollars using geothermal.

Ohio State University is one of these campuses pursuing lower energy costs by installing geothermal. Their five new high-rises will be heated and cooled partially by geothermal energy – cutting costs by one-third. Ball State University is also installing a geothermal system of its own, and is expecting a $2 million savings and a 50% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

Trying to find a way to make your campus less fossil fuel dependent? Take a look at the results of this study. Chances are that the answer is hiding underneath your feet. 


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