The Value of the Geothermal Market

Published On: June 20, 2024By Categories: Business Management, Drilling, Features, Geothermal Technology

Why become involved in the geothermal industry?

By Jack DiEnna

Well for one thing, geothermal heat pump technology is finally being recognized as a valued renewable thermal asset by the U.S. Department of Energy through the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021. This along with the climate change narrative has increased the interest in this type of technology.

But we still must fight the lack of awareness for not only the technology—but more importantly, the many benefits these systems bring to the table.

K-to-12 Schools

The DOE states that energy used in buildings accounts for more than 40% of the primary energy used in the United States, and that 40% of the total energy used in those buildings is for heating, cooling, and water heating.

K-to-12 schools are a ready market. They are the second largest public infrastructure investment in the country and one of the biggest energy consumers in the public sector. More than $8 billion is spent annually on energy for schools. Schools also consume about 8% of all energy used in commercial buildings and emit as much carbon dioxide as 18 coal-powered generating plants.

By the time a student graduates high school, he or she has spent 15,000 hours inside a school, second only to the time spent at home. There are 131,000 public and private K-to-12 schools in the United States with 3.6 million public and private school students. According to the National Council for School Facilities, the average age of a school building is 50 years old, and 41% have failing HVAC systems.

Research done by both the Harvard Medical School and Yale Medical School point to the fact that higher relative humidity (between 40% to 60%) impedes or delays the transmission of respiratory viruses. Heating-only schools have a relative humidity between 10% to 20%, so installing a geothermal system increases the relative humidity levels to 40% to 55%, which improves the health and safety of both students and staff.

Are There Other Benefits?

There certainly are. This initiative would also have a positive impact on the electric grid. A study conducted by the Western Farmers Electric Cooperative in Oklahoma found every installed ton of geothermal heat pump capacity reduced the peak load by 0.55 kW.

Given the total number of installed tons possible (15.42 million) in the K-to-12 school market, that would result in a peak load reduction of 28.3 kW, using the renewable thermal asset as the catalyst.

That would also have a major impact on emission reductions using a non-wires, non-pipeline alternative to support utilities-mandated climate goals.

What Does This Mean for Me?

Potentially a lot of work. Of the 131,000 school buildings in the country, 41% of them have HVAC systems that could be replaced with a geothermal heat pump system. That’s 53,700 schools!

Schools are a great candidate for geothermal as thousands are old with failing HVAC systems.

Let’s break down that number more. There are 28,000 public K-to-8 school buildings and 9642 public high schools. In the private sector, there are 7736 K-to-8 school buildings and 1480 high schools.

The assumption used is that a K-to-8 school building is around 118,000 square feet. Using 400 square feet per installed ton, that equates to 296 tons per K-to-8 school. High schools average 173,727 square feet and add up to 434 tons per school.

The 28,000 public K-to-8 schools multiplied by 296 tons per school totals out to 8.2 million tons of capacity. The public high school number for tons of capacity is 4.1 million tons.

The private K-to-8 schools have 2.3 million tons of capacity, and the private high schools have 642,320 tons of capacity.

The total number of tons for all sectors is 15.42 million. Using the metric of 400 drilling feet per ton, that equates to 38,550 boreholes of 400 feet.

The Anchor Tenant Concept

One of the major considerations when proposing a geothermal system is where to install the loop field. The Anchor Tenant Concept is based on schools typically having large areas such as baseball, football, or soccer fields or a large parking lot that can be used to install the ground loop heat exchanger for a school and nearby homes.

The school is the anchor tenant, and the loop field branches out to the surrounding community. The system would be designed at 100% capacity for the school, but the loop field can be increased to include any of the surrounding houses that agree to install a geothermal system.

A benefit of using a school is that it has diversity with the surrounding community. When school is in session, the surrounding houses are less likely to be occupied. When the school is closed or has limited occupancy, the homes are more often occupied. In the summer when there is more cooling needed, the school is typically empty, so the surrounding community has the benefit of the loop field.

How Do I Get Involved?

A driller is the heart of the geothermal or ground source heat pump industry. To use a phrase given to me by a British philosopher: “Remember no hole, no box.” So, I encourage you to take pride in your trade and become a vocal supporter of this technology.

Everyone has a school district near them, and with 53,700 schools in need of new HVAC systems, yours most probably includes a school in need.

There are also schools being upgraded. Attend meetings about those proposed changes and let those in attendance know you are part of a renewable industry that has the solution for better learning environments, reduced energy costs, and lower emissions.

Installing a geothermal system in a school is much more beneficial to the entire school than something like an electric school bus, which only impacts the students who take the bus. A geothermal system is actually cheaper with a longer life cycle.

Geothermal systems also qualify for the 30% tax credit through the federal Inflation Reduction Act if the system is in service by January 1, 2033. In some states, they may also qualify for emission credits.

This all adds up to a call to action for the drilling and geothermal community. This is our time—let’s not lose it!


Jack DiEnna is the executive director and founder of the Geothermal National & International Initiative (GEO-NII). He is a business development and marketing professional with more than 50 years combined experience in the electric utility industry and the geothermal industry. He is the chairman of the IGSHPA Board of Directors and can be reached at jdienna@geo-nii.org.

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