- Eleven communities nationwide — from Nome, Alaska, to New York City — will receive funding to design geothermal heating and cooling systems through a $13 million U.S. Department of Energy initiative, the department announced last week.
- DOE will select several of the designs for later development to show other cities and towns how they can use community-scale geothermal systems, which are relatively uncommon in the U.S., to reduce fossil fuel use and potentially save money on heating and cooling.
- Geothermal heat pumps, a core component of these systems, “are the most underutilized tool right now in terms of the potential to decarbonize our building and community infrastructure,” said Alexis McKittrick, a program manager in DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office, in an interview.
Geothermal systems leverage the relatively stable temperatures underground to transfer heat into buildings in the winter and out of them in the summer through a distribution network of underground pipes. Some systems can supply buildings with hot water as well, the DOE says.
These systems run on electricity, meaning fossil fuels don’t need to be burned on site for heating the space and water in buildings. But community geothermal systems don’t substantially increase electricity demand, DOE says.
Already, these systems’ use by universities nationwide “have really helped show that these can work in really diverse environments that include residential systems, that include commercial or laboratory buildings,” DOE’s McKittrick said.
The communities selected for the initiative are scattered across the nation, from Alaska to the Midwest to Massachusetts. “These heat pumps work in all 50 states in the U.S. and are deployed right now in all 50 states,” McKittrick said.
Local governments considering geothermal systems often find it challenging to build a coalition of local stakeholders, she said. That’s why DOE asked funding applicants to identify partners who have experience deploying these systems and who can do analysis and design work, as well as to bring workforce experts to the table to discuss the development of a local workforce to support the systems, McKittrick said.
Local governments also can find it difficult to finance the upfront costs of geothermal systems, although McKittrick pointed to federal incentives for heat pumps that communities can access through the Inflation Reduction Act.
In Duluth, Minnesota, community members have been pressuring the city to look into geothermal systems for years, and the $700,000 in DOE funding will allow it to finally do so, Duluth Sustainability Officer Mindy Granley said. Duluth plans to design a system that uses waste heat from a nearby wastewater and solid waste service provider to cover all heating loads in the disadvantaged neighborhood of Lincoln Park, Granley said.
Preliminary calculations show there could be enough additional heat available in the system to bring it to more than 100 downtown buildings already on a district energy system, Granley said. The city will also study the system’s potential to heat 215 public housing units in two buildings and a 15,000-square-foot community center, as well as its potential to melt ice and snow at bus stops and on sidewalks, she said.
The city also will study what the geothermal system would mean for community members’ energy bills, although “you'd imagine there would be savings there,” Granley said, since they would no longer pay for natural gas and instead buy the electricity to move the hot water around.
“The city doesn't have money to take a risk and spend $700,000 on design, but this program has allowed us to do that, to vet this project and make sure it's technically feasible and economically feasible for our neighborhoods,” she said.
Other communities DOE selected to design geothermal systems are:
- Ann Arbor, Michigan
- New York City
- Framingham, Massachusetts
- Wallingford, Connecticut
- Carbondale, Colorado
- Middlebury, Vermont
- Seward, Alaska
- Shawnee, Oklahoma
- Nome, Alaska