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Geothermal energy to contribute to net-zero campus

December 18, 2009 - 3:26pm

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Of the handful of frontrunners in the scramble to become the nation’s first net-zero college campus, the Oregon Institute of Technology may be one of the most unique. Sometime between 2011 and 2012, OIT plans to emerge from the pack as the only college campus in the U.S. to produce all of its own base load energy from a geothermal energy source, located deep in the ground beneath the campus in Klamath Falls.

As a natural extension of that, the school also touts itself as a hub for green career training. OIT’s Renewable Energy Engineering bachelor’s degree program now has about 100 students enrolled and its Geo-Heat Center’s staff provides the information, training and technical assistance necessary to promote the use of geothermal energy in the region and across the country.

“In addition to providing a training site for our students, our campus will also be a show-me site for potential developers and investors using geothermal energy,” Geo-Heat Center director John Lund says. Showing people first-hand how geothermal technology works helps them understand its simplicity and potential, he adds.

And along with other area universities and the University of Nevada at Reno, John says OIT is working to start a geothermal energy program to train American and international students that could start as early as fall 2010.

John’s own training in geotechnical engineering and teaching engineering geology and soil mechanics at OIT made him the go-to guy on all things geothermal.

“This helped me to become a spokesman for the great domestic resource.” John says. His own home is entirely heated with geothermal energy, including his hot tub.

As director of the center since 1997, John has worked to take the campus a giant leap beyond its original geothermal development, which was completed in 1960 and supplies 192 F water to heat the college’s buildings. 

He helped formalize plans in 2003 to make OIT a net-zero campus, meaning its buildings will reach zero net energy consumption and carbon emissions annually.

A geophysical survey in 2008 led to a clearer picture of the mile-deep fault below OIT’s campus already tapped by the existing wells – a potentially ideal condition for further developing a geothermal energy source. Then, a new well was drilled in early 2009 to a depth of 5,300 feet, which, according to John, will help power a roughly 1-megawatt plant.

A second, smaller 280-kilowatt plant that will use the pre-existing wells was placed on campus in March, and it will be operational before the end of 2009.

The small plant will save about $100,000 annually, and John estimates the large plant will save $400,000 annually. In addition, the extra energy generated from the new deep well will be used to supply heat to a retirement home and a sustainable energy park adjacent to campus and to backup the existing geothermal heating system, netting up to another $200,000 each year.

Eventually, the campus will be connected to the power grid via a net-metering contract, where it will use the generated electricity and waste water to power and heat the campus and can sell surplus electricity to the local utility company, John says.

“With some photovoltaic or solar concentrators to be installed on campus, we expect to meet 100 percent of the electrical peak,” John says. “Thus, we will be 100 percent green — the first campus in the world.”

The Geo-Heat Center facilities act as realistic labs, available for students, public officials, technicians and engineers to study, gather data and report their findings, and the center will make all data available online at http://geoheat.oit.edu.

The Geothermal Power Generation Project was funded by $984,000 from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Another $1.5 million has been awarded for fiscal year 2009.

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