Vassar builds geothermal wells to heat new buildings

Images courtesy of Harrison Walker ’26.

Just before the end of last semester, I was granted the opportunity to take a hard hat tour of Vassar’s Inn and Institute for the Liberal Arts construction site. As a soft-handed liberal arts student, I’ll admit this was my first time on a bonafide construction site, but the work there was fascinating. Construction on the Inn and Institute began in October, and it is expected to open by 2024. According to its website, “The Vassar Institute for the Liberal Arts will convene scholars and thought leaders from Vassar, our local area and around the globe.” The Institute hopes to create a space where people from all walks of life can come together and share ideas, finding solutions to difficult problems.

The project is very impressive on a sustainability front. The building is designed to be completely carbon-neutral, utilizing geothermal wells, solar panels and all-electric appliances, according to the informational website on the Institute. President Elizabeth Bradley said of the project, “This is our first net zero-emissions building on campus, which is among the first such buildings of its type in the Hudson Valley. In its commitment to net zero-emissions, the Institute and Inn sets the standard for other new construction on campus. Throughout the planning process, the green building guidelines, developed by the Climate Action and Sustainability Committee with students in 2020, have been front and center.” Professionals and students alike have been influencing the construction plans; even in the design process, the Institute has been doing its work of connecting students and experts for change.

Presently, the work on the site is focused on the green geothermal installations, which the construction superintendent described in detail. There are a total of 56 geothermal wells underneath the majority of the site, each running 500 feet deep into the crust. This is a shallow depth for geothermal power generation, but it suits the necessary purpose, which is to supplement heating and cooling processes. The temperature at that depth is 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius), and the wells pump water down into the ground so that it reaches that temperature before being pumped back up to help the temperature regulation of the building. The diagram included in the article demonstrates this process visually.

Images courtesy of Harrison Walker ’26.

The function of the wells changes seasonally .The municipal water temperature will correlate to the outside temperature, getting as cold as 38 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and as hot as 71 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. The water pumped down the well comes back out at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which can assist the heating or cooling process of the building. This is supplemented by an electric water heater powered by other means to get the temperature to an ideal setting, but the change in temperature the wells provide cuts down electricity needs by a great deal.

Mary Ann Cunningham, Director of the Environmental Studies program at Vassar, said of the installations, “The geothermal wells are exciting because they use heat pumps, which are one of the most important answers to the climate crisis. That is, heating and cooling buildings is responsible for around 25 percent of emissions, and right now most heating, and a lot of cooling, relies on burning fossil fuels.” She went on to explain the specifics of how Vassar and Poughkeepsie are part of this problem, saying, “At Vassar, we mostly burn natural gas (increasingly called fossil gas or methane gas). For a lot of homes in the Hudson Valley, we use more expensive fuel oil or propane, as well as gas.” Natural gas releases methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. By finding an alternative for heating and cooling, we’re able to avoid harmful emissions, and we should aim to continue this across campus.

Geothermal wells are economically and logistically intensive on the front end for installation, with a specialized crew needing to drill them down into bedrock, but once they’re in, very little maintenance is needed. After speaking with the construction site superintendent, I learned that Vassar has received a Federal Nicerta grant of $1.9 million to help install the wells and will be receiving more federal help for heat pump installations expected near the Terrace Apartments. Similar geothermal setups can be installed under smaller buildings, including homes, and are a highly efficient way to cut down on your carbon footprint and electricity bill in the long term.

What’s really exciting is that this is in our backyard. Cunningham said, “The biggest reason I’m excited about the geothermal system in the Institute is that it’s a learning opportunity. Students can see how the system works and learn from it… [V]isitors can see the building and learn how it works, if we make sure and communicate why it’s important.” As a Vassar student hoping to pursue a sustainability-oriented career ( I know I’m far from the only one), it excites me that our own campus is at the forefront of climate innovations. Cunningham continued, “At Vassar, it’s just one building so far, but we need to find ways to cut emissions from all our buildings, so this is an excellent place to start.” An excellent place to start, indeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *