Cornell’s “Earth Source Heat” Project is Tapping Into Geothermal Heating

Cornell wants to drill 2 to 4 miles underground for enhanced geothermal heating

ARS Technica, September 19, 2016

Geothermal energy—energy drawn from the internal heat of the Earth—has long been the purview of mountainous, volcano- and earthquake-prone regions like the western United States or Iceland. The US’ eastern states, on the other hand, have been generally disregarded as geologically unfit for geothermal projects because the rock beneath them rarely has the natural fractures or water sources necessary to easily build a geothermal system. But that’s not stopping Cornell University, based in upstate New York, from thinking it can warm its Ithaca campus in winter by tapping into heat from “basement rock,” two to four miles underground.


Cornell announced a new project, called “Earth Source Heat,” this month. The university will research and potentially execute a system that will involve drilling deep into the rock near the campus, circulating fluid to capture the naturally occurring underground heat, and using that fluid to directly heat the campus (rather than change the heat into electricity, as many geothermal plants do).

The project would be considered an “enhanced geothermal system,” or an EGS, which differs from a regular geothermal system in that the reservoir of hot rock into which fluid is injected is man-made, rather than naturally created. EGS projects have been very limited in the US. In 2014, when Ars toured a geothermal plant outside of Reno, Nevada, Karl Gawell, the executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, called EGS a “tough business” because funding for projects was difficult to come by, and private companies found such an endeavor far too expensive to be economically feasible.

The grand vision for Earth Source Heat is not a guarantee, however. Cornell will start with a demonstration project, which will include building two wells, as well as heat-exchange technology, to heat targeted areas of the campus. A Cornell spokesperson told Ars that such a small-scale demonstration would likely cost $12 million to 15 million in initial research. Currently, the university is trying to build support among community members and assemble researchers and investors from higher education, private business, and government agencies. If the demonstration is successful, then the university will move toward a “full-scale geothermal project.”

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Image credit: Eustress