Minnesota’s Carleton College is among a growing list of schools investing in the centuries-old technology as part of a path to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or sooner.

A spring sunset at Carleton College. Credit: drjoshuawhitman / Creative Commons

A small but growing list of U.S. colleges and universities are dusting off a centuries-old technology to help meet their ambitious climate goals.

Carleton College, a small, private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota, is the latest to trade fossil-fueled steam heat for geothermal district energy as it aims to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or sooner.

Completed last summer, the $41 million project is Minnesota’s first geothermal district energy system and one of only about two dozen nationwide. They vary in design but typically consist of a network of pipes and heat pumps that tap into steady, subterranean temperatures to heat and cool buildings on the surface.

Most U.S. geothermal district energy systems were built more than 30 years ago amid rising oil and gas prices in the 1970s and 1980s, but the technology is seeing a resurgence today on college campuses as schools look for tools to help them follow through on climate commitments.

“I think it is one of the only scalable solutions for creating a low-carbon campus,” said Lindsey Olsen, an associate vice president and senior mechanical engineer for Salas O’Brien. The California-based engineering and facility planning firm has worked with Carleton College and others on geothermal projects.

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Colleges see untapped potential in geothermal district energy systems