Geothermal heat pumps are helping clean up city buildings

Initiatives in Austin, New York City, and beyond are aiming to curb costs and boost adoption of geothermal heating and cooling to reduce CO2 from buildings.
By Maria Gallucci

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(Binh Nguyen/Canary Media/Bedrock Energy)

Late last year in Austin, Texas, big blue rigs rolled up to a sunbaked parking lot and started boring holes deep into the ground. Bedrock Energy, a geothermal startup, was deploying its novel drilling technology for the first time, near a block of low-slung commercial buildings on South Congress Avenue.

Over the following two months, Bedrock’s team drilled 11 holes beneath the torn-up parking lot, each one reaching 800 feet deep. Now those holes form the backbone of a geothermal heating and cooling system, which can extract heat from, or pump heat into, the ground to keep temperatures comfortable inside an adjacent office space — without directly using fossil fuels.

Joselyn Lai, the startup’s co-founder and CEO, said a more conventional drilling setup would’ve required drilling 30 holes, to depths of 300 feet, to deliver the same amount of heating and cooling. But the parking lot isn’t wide enough to accommodate a project like that. By using its subsurface modeling software and powerful, sensor-equipped drilling tools, Bedrock was able to design a system that fit.

Urban buildings are where most of our carbon emissions come from in the built environment,” Lai told Canary Media. She said the company is aiming to expand the addressable, serviceable market” for geothermal heating and cooling so that even buildings in dense areas can harvest energy hiding below the surface.

In mid-April, the clean-energy system officially went online in a 30,000-square-foot building on the Penn Field campus, a former World War I military airfield that today hosts local businesses like Deep Eddy Vodka and High Brew Coffee.

We now have user prototypes to show that geothermal can be more space-efficient, can be low risk, and can be overall faster to install,” Lai said of the Austin installation. And that’s what we think it will take to scale” the technology overall.

Members of Bedrock Energy's field operations team visit the startup's first drilling site in Austin, Texas. (Bedrock Energy)

Geothermal energy is experiencing a surge of investment and policy support across the United States as companies and government agencies work to replace polluting fossil fuels with emissions-free energy — and lots of it, for that matter.

Startups within the fast-growing industry are developing next-generation solutions to produce clean, firm” electricity in geographic locations that conventional geothermal technologies can’t access. Other companies like Bedrock are innovating on a relatively smaller scale to make it easier and more affordable to decarbonize homes and buildings.

In both groups, many companies are helmed or funded by oil and gas industry veterans, who are rechanneling their knowledge of drilling and geosciences to produce clean energy. At Bedrock, most of the company’s 17-person team had previous careers in oil and gas, including co-founder and chief technology officer Silviu Livescu. Last fall, the two-year-old company raised $8.5 million in seed funding to deploy its technology in Texas.

Meanwhile, local governments and utilities nationwide are turning to geothermal to help meet all-electric building standards and to satisfy mandates for slashing greenhouse gas emissions. States like Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York are rolling out underground thermal networks, which service buildings much like fossil-gas pipelines do. In New York City, the utility Con Edison is offering new financial incentives to boost public demand for geothermal.

We want to get more people to consider this technology,” said David Orellano, who manages Con Edison’s geothermal incentive programs. We think geothermal heating and cooling is a really great way to facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner energies.”

Removing costly barriers for big buildings 

In buildings, geothermal systems — also called ground-source heat pumps, or geothermal heat exchangers — use the shallow earth to exchange heat and cold from aboveground. Just dozens of feet beneath our shoes, the ground maintains a relatively constant temperature of between 45 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the location.

Once holes are drilled, U-shaped plastic tubing is threaded into the openings. Liquids then flow down and circulate back to the surface to operate a building’s HVAC system. When outside temperatures soar, the liquids deposit that heat in the surrounding soil. On chilly days, the system absorbs earth’s heat and brings it aboveground.

(U.S. Department of Energy)

Compared with air-source heat pumps, geothermal systems can reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by up to 44 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Geothermal systems generally require less power to operate, which puts less strain on the electrical grid and helps reduce customers’ energy bills.

Yet for all the apparent upsides, relatively few buildings in the United States have adopted the technology, owing largely to high upfront costs and the complexities of digging into the ground in populated areas. In cities, all the existing construction makes it harder to access the earth — a problem that Bedrock Energy is starting to solve in Austin.

In New York, Con Edison and its partners are looking to tackle another major barrier facing big buildings in particular: the time and money required to drill test holes.

A test hole enables geothermal providers to more accurately understand how the rocks and soil affect the drilling process and how much water is likely to flow up from the new openings. A step called thermal conductivity testing” indicates how much heat the system will be capable of transferring between the ground and building. Such information is necessary for companies to adequately design, price, and plan geothermal systems for large commercial buildings and multifamily housing.

We don’t want surprises,” said Cory Klausmann, director of business development for Brightcore Energy, a New York–based geothermal and clean-energy provider.

Brightcore Energy developed the geothermal heating and cooling system at 1 Java Street in Brooklyn, the largest residential project in New York to use the technology. (Brightcore Energy)

Companies that drill test holes are more likely to go through with building a full-scale system. But a single test hole can run around $70,000, when including the cost of deploying equipment, hiring crews, and securing permits, according to Orellano. The initial sticker shock is enough to dissuade many building owners and developers from pursuing geothermal at all.

For that reason, executives from Brightcore Energy and other geothermal companies approached Con Edison about creating a program to help reduce early-stage costs for their potential clients. In response, the utility launched an incentive offering in March that covers as much as $40,000 of eligible costs for thermal conductivity testing. The initiative is part of Con Edison’s Clean Heat Program, which has $10 million of authorized funding per month.

The goal is that the customer hopefully chooses to move forward with the geothermal project” after initial testing, Orellano said. He noted that he expects the utility will receive a few dozen” applications for the thermal-conductivity test incentives in any given year.

Back in Austin, Lai said that Bedrock Energy is working to drive down the total costs of geothermal projects by drilling fewer, deeper holes overall — and by doing so at a faster clip, so that building owners can more quickly recover the cost of their investment through reduced energy bills.

With its Penn Field pilot system up and running, Bedrock is talking to potential next customers, including the owners of a new commercial building in urban Texas and a sprawling warehouse in a grid-constrained region.

For the most part, no one is going to adopt a solution that is more energy-efficient and less polluting unless we really make it cost effective … and reduce the cost of something that we want the world to adopt,” Lai said. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.