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Energy from the ground up: UCAR ponders geothermal system

Did you notice the truck and generator at UCAR's newest building in December and wonder what was going on? UCAR contracted with Major Geothermal to conduct tests on whether the ground below 3375 Mitchell Lane is well suited for installing a geothermal heat pump, one of the most efficient technologies now available for heating and cooling. The building at this location was acquired by UCAR in June 2009 and is being remodeled over the next year.

The geothermal tests went well, according to sustainability manager Kimberly Kosmenko. "We're placing a priority on making this an energy-efficient, high-performance remodel," she says.

If a geothermal heat pump is installed, it would be the institution's first. Also known as ground-source heat pumps, geothermal systems draw on the relatively constant temperature of the ground below a building (roughly 50°F in the Boulder area) in order to generate heating in winter and cooling in summer. The system sends fluid through a series of pipes below ground; the fluid returns to a heat pump that generates room-temperature air in roughly the same way that a refrigerator produces cool air. Although geothermal technology is well established, the expense of residential installation and the low cost of fossil fuels have kept its use limited until recently. 

Ground-source heat pumps produce as much as six times more power than they consume. The vast majority of UCAR's heating and cooling expense is for electricity rather than natural gas, since large office buildings must be cooled year round. UCAR's bill for grid-based electricity at 3375 Mitchell Lane-and the resulting carbon footprint-could be reduced by 50% or more through a geothermal system, according to estimates by Major Geothermal. Maintenance costs are also low, and the underground infrastructure is designed to last 50 years or more.

FM&S (Facilities Management & Sustainability) is continuing to work on plans for the remodel of 3375 Mitchell Lane and will keep staff apprised of progress.