In May 2022, Cornellians will see a drill the height of McGraw Tower rise above a plot of land between the Cornell Teaching Dairy Barn and Cascadilla Creek as it drills a 10,000-foot hole. The drilling is part of the Cornell University Borehole Observatory: the first stage of the University’s Earth Source Heating project, which aims to eventually use geothermal heat to provide ecologically-friendly heating to campus buildings.
The drilling site is located approximately 2,100 feet from the nearest academic building, 2,000 feet from the nearest residences and 4,800 feet from the nearest water wells. These location choices were intentional, with a team of engineers, campus planners and trustee representatives collaborating to ensure the drilling site causes minimum disruption to the academic activities and physical environment of the area.
Cornell’s Earth Source Heating program has evolved since 2009 as a way to harness renewable energy in Ithaca. It constitutes part of Cornell’s Climate Action Plan, which aims for the University’s campus operations to be carbon-neutral by 2035.
The current academic team behind the project includes a diverse array of individuals from across the University: members of the Campus Sustainability Office and Cornell professors studying everything from deep geothermal heat and local geology to environmental and chemical engineering.
One member of the Borehole team, Professor Emeritus Anthony Ingraffea, civil and environmental engineering, said that this project would allow Cornell to better model sustainable energy practices for other institutions.
“[This project and others enable] Cornell to become a role model for other entities and universities and prove that it is possible to formulate earth source heating processes for other communities,” Ingraffea said.
To better disseminate knowledge about the project to the wider Ithaca area, the team wants community members, such as K-12 teachers and program educators, to use the Borehole Observatory in their work, according to Prof. Teresa Jordan, earth and atmospheric sciences.
Although the first step of drilling the Borehole Observatory will not yet produce heat for the Ithaca campus, it will explore the feasibility and safety of the site while testing the necessary conditions for future steps — including a two-well demonstration deep geothermal heating system.
The Borehole Observatory will also allow researchers to investigate how much heat geothermal energy can provide, determine whether or not it will be sufficient for Cornell’s Ithaca campus and what, if any, unexpected consequences may arise from using this site to generate heat.
“[This step’s] sole purpose is to ‘ground truth’ the conditions below the surface and help us to better understand whether this resource is viable,” said Steve Beyers, a Cornell Facilities Services energy specialist and consultant.
Some Cornell community members have raised concerns about how the project would be conducted and whether it would be sufficiently transparent. Jacob Feit ’22, former student chair of the Campus Committee on Infrastructure, Technology and the Environment, said he believes that members of the Cornell community must have access to critical information about the local environment and the energy sources involved in the project.
“An uncompromised commitment to transparency and accountability must be maintained at every step in order to truly live up to the ideals and goals said to be pursued by this project,” Feit said.
Beyers discussed the goals that are achievable beyond this project on campus.
“If these deep wells and district heating systems are able to harness the essentially infinite energy lying right beneath our feet, [this technology] can be expanded to help [other regions] meet their carbon reduction goals,” Beyers said.
Sustainable technology projects, like the Borehole Observatory, fit into a broader network of initiatives at Cornell with both practical and research purposes. Sometimes referred to as a “living laboratory” model, part of the Cornell Climate Action Plan involves testing solutions to the climate crisis on campus.
“We perceive campus as a living laboratory that affords our world-renowned researchers the opportunity to collect and analyze the essential data necessary for further improving the efficacy, efficiency and safety of future earth source heating initiatives in communities both within New York State and across the country,” Feit said.