US Colleges Turning to 'Geoexchange' to Slash Carbon Emissions

Feb 6, 2024

Much of the world is aiming to reach “net-zero” in carbon emissions by 2050. A growing list of US colleges and universities may get there sooner through plans to install a new system that heats and cools buildings.

The system is called geoexchange. It's a way to heat or cool buildings year-round. It does so by pulling heat from these structures during the summer and storing it underground to be used in the winter. Meanwhile, it pulls cool air from the earth in exchange. These systems require the deep drilling of boreholes. Those boreholes rely on heat pumps that store and release heat in buildings during the year.     

At least 15 US colleges and universities have approved, begun, or installed geoexchange programs. Many more are looking into it. One of them is Princeton University. It has launched a project to replace its 150-year-old steam pipe system with a geoexchange system. It will cost millions of dollars. But, the new system will likely save money in the long run. And the project is expected to slash water use.  

Carleton College, in Minnesota, expects to regain the $42 million it spent on a geoexchange system in 18 years. That's because it's expected to save the college more than $42 million over that time. It finished installation in 2021. College officials say the new system has slashed its target date for reaching carbon neutrality from 2050 to 2025.  

Geoexchange programs are welcomed by almost everyone.   

“I’ve never seen this level of consensus behind a project,” a top official at Smith College told The New York Times. “I’m not always the person they’re applauding at a faculty meeting. When we were presenting this, they were extremely, extremely happy. And it’s an infrastructure project.” 

Photo from Reuters.

Reflect: How can schools make their buildings more environmentally friendly, and what benefits might it bring for students, teachers, and the planet?

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