Oberlin’s Sustainable Infrastructure Program Enters Key Phase

Four-year project to convert campus heating and cooling system set for drilling of 850 geothermal wells.

May 30, 2023

Ginger Christ

Construction crew prepares the site for installation of Oberlin's geothermal well.
Workers prepares the field for installation of Oberlin's geothermal well system in late May.
Photo credit: Office of Communications

This summer, Oberlin College and Conservatory will tap into the core of a four-year project to convert its century-old fossil-fuel-based heating system to one using eco-friendly geothermal technology. During the week of May 29, drilling will begin on the first of approximately 850 wells on the practice fields north of campus, which will become the cornerstone of the new system.

The project, known as the Sustainable Infrastructure Program, is a foundational part of Oberlin’s delivery on its 2006 pledge to become carbon neutral by 2025. Once operational, the new system will reduce campus energy consumption by 30 percent, cutting annual water use by 5 million gallons and sewer discharge by 4 million gallons while significantly cutting overall campus energy costs.

Progress on the project can be viewed via a still-image webcam installed at the construction site.

The new energy system will circulate hot water and chilled water through a network of underground pipes to distribute energy to buildings for heating and cooling spaces and for domestic hot water. The closed-loop geothermal system is self-contained and will not extract or inject water into the ground. Instead, the same water is continuously circulated through pipes 600 feet underground—roughly the height of a 50-story building—through distribution pipes and into heat pumps powered by renewable electricity. The system will pull heat from the ground in winter and reject heat back underground in the summer.

“This work integrates the earth as an energy-storage device,” says Joel Baetens, Oberlin’s campus energy and resource manager. “When completed, the system will enable us to lean on clean energy for our heating needs—a pivotal step in our commitment to carbon neutrality.”

Oberlin has been at the forefront of a push across higher education to minimize environmental footprints. In 2006, it became the first of its peers to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, inspiring leaders at hundreds of other institutions to similarly pledge to bring their net greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

As part of its efforts, Oberlin has upped its purchase of green electricity, installed a 2.27 megawatt solar array on a 10-acre field north of campus, moved away from coal as a heat source, and completed energy-efficiency projects. Completion of the project will bring the college within reach of carbon neutrality, with final reductions or offsets aimed at waste and transportation emissions. 

In addition to playing a fundamental role in Oberlin’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality, the project will position the institution for additional steps to reduce or offset greenhouse gas emissions.

The new system will be flexible enough to implement new technologies as they are developed even decades from now, according to Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings, Oberlin’s vice president of finance and administration. The project is expected to be completed by 2025.

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