What do a small town in Massachusetts, a New York City apartment complex, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, and a large chunk of Iceland, as far back as the Viking Age, have in common?
Geothermal energy, which as Jamie Beard, the founder of the Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization and the geothermal nonprofit Project Innerspace, explains on Wired’s Have a Nice Future podcast, is perhaps the most overlooked, the biggest, and possibly the greenest energy source on, or rather in, the planet.
“The core of the Earth is essentially a nuclear reactor that is constantly churning and producing massive amounts of heat,” she said.
Since the time of the Vikings, geothermal energy has been used in Iceland, a territory with some of the most geologically active on Earth, straddled right over a volcanic hotspot. Today, according to the country’s National Energy Authority, geothermal power facilities currently generate 25% of the country's total electricity production and 66% of Iceland's primary energy use.
As the authority puts it, geothermal is what took Iceland from one of Europe’s poorest countries dependent on imported (and climate change-fueling) coal, to a country using majority indigenous renewable resources.
However, for the rest of the world, Beard said on the podcast that geothermal is “not really on the radar.”
“Less than 1% of the energy produced is geothermal,” she said emphasizing that diverse renewables outside of wind and solar are necessary for the energy transition.
“We’re starting from scratch.”
So, all the way across the ocean, companies are attempting to tap into geothermal, but instead of in Iceland, known as the land of fire and ice, they are drilling into the crust of the United State’s frigid Northeast, aka the land of ice, a short summer, and ice again.
Framingham, Massachusetts, the local gas utility Eversource, is exploring geothermal as a new different way to get power to its New England residents.
Geothermal energy originates from the formation of the planet and from the radioactive decay of materials and is so hot that it can cause solid rock to melt.
While geothermal energy is location dependent as, traditionally, they need to be built upon reservoirs above 100°C or 212°F, once tapped, it is a reliable source of energy because it is not intermittent like solar or wind, both of which need batteries to make up for when the
sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
So, how is Eversource getting geothermal energy to an area that, unlike Iceland, doesn’t sit on the Ring of Fire?
The way that geothermal works is that a really (really) deep hole is dug into the ground, a liquid is poured in and the liquid, now heated tremendously by the Earth’s crust is brought back up, and alakazam ta-da shazam you have heat, and thereby energy.
“You’re just using the Earth to boil liquid,” Beard said on the podcast. However, at its core, or rather the Earth’s core, geothermal is a lot more complicated and has a lot of broad engineering challenges.
This is because while places like Iceland as practically swimming in geothermal energy, with their unique volcanic geography, other places especially urban centers that need terawatts of the stuff aren’t. So the deeper the drill, the more complex.
Geothermal pilots in Texas, for example, are drilling quite deep, but just as deep as existing oil and gas wells, making it in Beard’s eyes “not a moonshot.”
And Eversource seems to agree.
According to the utility, it is getting around those engineering challenges by harnessing the energy through an “innovative shared network that services an entire neighborhood.”
As Eversource explains in a video, “First there is an intricate system of vertical and horizontal pipes filled with an environmentally friendly liquid called propylene glycol.”
According to Beard, this modern innovation of being able to drill horizontally instead of just vertically is what could get geothermal off the ground outside of places like Iceland. Instead of needing hundreds of degrees of heat. Eversource just needs a resting temperature of 55°F.
“Second, is a unit called a heat pump that is installed within your building,” the video continues. “Third is conventional ductwork which many buildings have or can be installed.”
And the video makes clear: even though it gets very cold in New England, it works in the winter too.
Vertical pipes will be strategically spaced throughout the network loop hundreds of pipe and will feed below ground where the liquid inside is warmed by the Earth a larger horizontal pipe will carry this warm liquid all throughout the neighborhood. Service lines will bring the liquid to individual homes and businesses, where a building’s heat pump concentrates the thermal energy and converts it into hot air that is pumped through the ductwork to keep everyone warm and toasty.
And this liquid is reused over and over again, in a circular process.
“What we’re hoping to demonstrate is that this technology really is scalable, and it can be rolled out to a larger customer base,” Eric Bosworth, senior program manager at Eversource, said via the publication Fast Company.
The utility company has already broken ground and the pilot is scheduled to be complete by the coming winter.
The idea of using a heat pump for transferring geothermal energy isn’t new.
There are a handful of startups looking to make geothermal heat pumps mainstream including Google spinout Dandelion Energy which installs the ground-source heat pumps in the frigid Northeast, French startup Equium, and even large companies like Lendlease, a global construction and real estate firm, and its joint-venture partner Aware Super, who are teaming up with the Canadian firm Geosource to install a giant underground heat pump to power an New York City apartment complex.
As Canary Media reports, once completed in 2025, the Big Apple’s $700 million big pump project will be the largest residential project in New York state to use a geothermal heat pump system.
Around 50,000 geothermal heat pumps a year are now installed in the United States, representing a sliver of the country’s many millions of buildings.
“Geothermal resources are literally beneath our feet and hidden in the ground,” Alexis McKittrick, a program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Geothermal Technologies Office, said via Canary Media.
“The public is generally unaware that geothermal resources exist and could be used for a wide array of applications.”
According to McKittrick in addition to states, cities, and the federal government moving to restrict emissions to save the planet, and tax incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act are also expected to make systems more affordable and increase overall installations.
The NYC project is just one example of neighborhoods and residential communities alike taking advantage of these incentives and decarbonizing their residencies.
However, by using the utility model in Massachusetts, Framingham residents are able to afford it even without the incentives.
As Fast Company reports, homeowners who wouldn’t have been able to afford geothermal heat — which might cost $40,000 in a single-family home installation — can take advantage of the traditional utility business model that all ratepayers slowly pay for the cost of improvements over time.
“We’re used to taking large capital projects and we front the cost, we install the infrastructure, we get it into place, and then the cost to the customer to utilize the service is simply the heat pump itself and connecting to our shared loop,” Bosworth says. The pilot is expected to cost $14.7 million, though costs will drop as utilities gain more experience.
The idea could take off throughout the rest of the country.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is awarding millions of dollars worth of funding through a pilot program that supports projects using geothermal or waste energy to heat and cool multiple buildings.
This funding program is the latest move in legislation in the state directing the largest gas and electric utilities to develop at least one and as many as five pilot thermal energy network projects.
Several utilities across the Northeast in places like Vermont already have pilots underway to explore a switch to networked geothermal, using pipes that were once used for gas.
As Canary Media reported earlier this year, pending legislation in Vermont could speed up such geothermal innovation by directing the state Public Utility Commission to adopt rules for permitting thermal energy networks similar to what Eversource is adopting in Massachusetts.
According to said Jake Marin, senior emerging technology and services manager at Efficiency Vermont, via the publication, The pumps are significantly more efficient than other forms of heating and cooling, “and if the electricity being used is renewable, you can envision a really, truly decarbonized future.”
However, cost is a valid question of how they will scale. And just like Eversource, Marin thinks a network could be the answer.
“Without question, geothermal is one of the most, if not the most, expensive options out there,” Marin said. “The big question mark is, can we do this at scale? The networked geothermal is an interesting take on this. If that cost can be sucked up into a utility model and amortized over time with the end users paying an access fee to spread that out, the speculation is that that may be a good answer for helping to scale geothermal.”
According to Beard, geothermal doesn't get as much funding from venture capital investors as other technologies because "it's not sexy." As she states, it's digging into the ground, which is what oil and gas already does. "It's not moonshot," she said on the podcast, and won't happen "30-50 years from now." "We want to build powerplants today."
While investment from both the venture side and the federal side is necessary, the utility model is stepping in to close the gap.
Plus, cities and states aren’t the only ones tapping into the Earth and utilizing utilities for geothermal even. Even Carleton College, a private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota uses geothermal units through a utility model that the college says includes a 70% reduction in gas consumption and a 15% increase in electricity consumption since the geothermal heat pump system electrified a large portion of Carleton’s heating load when they were installed in 2019.
Per its 2023 “Utility Master Plan,” geothermal heat pumps have played a large role in the college seeing a 10-15% reduction in utility cost on top of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions keeping the college on track to be a carbon-neutral campus by the year 2050.
As Jamie Beard, who might be the biggest voice behind geothermal in the industry puts it, we can’t fully decarbonize without energy from the Earth’s crust. And as these communities in the Northeast are showing, geothermal energy is possible even where there are not volcanoes bubbling the energy to the surface.
“We have a situation where as a species we are not being honest with ourselves about the urgency of the task at hand and how little time we have to very quickly do something. And when it comes down to it there are very few concepts out there that have such an immediate, massive impact on a global scale in renewable energy since as geothermal,” Beard said on Wired’s podcast.
“I think that we need to go back to the drawing board and take a look. And geothermal works out pretty damn well.”