New Geothermal Wells to be Drilled Outside Piper Hall, Reducing Fossil Fuel Consumption

A new system of geothermal wells are set to be constructed on the east and south ends of Piper Hall at 970 W. Sheridan Road.

A new system of geothermal wells are set to be constructed on the east and south ends of Piper Hall at 970 W. Sheridan Road, to curtail Loyola’s dependency on fossil fuels as a part of the Climate Action Plan. 

Kana Henning, vice president of Facilities, said fencing for construction is scheduled to go up March 27 and drilling for the wells will begin shortly after. The fencing will block off access to the lakefront from the north part of campus and construction is expected to conclude by mid August, according to Henning. 

Geothermal systems operate by drilling deep into the earth’s interior and extracting heat from the ground to perform functions such as heating, cooling and electricity generation, according to the Department of Energy

Nancy Tuchman, founder and dean of the School of Environmental Sustainability, said the new geothermal wells are part of a phase one implementation with more wells to come in the future. This system currently underway will provide heating and cooling to Piper Hall and Sullivan Center. 

Henning said the next phases of wells will unfold across multiple years so the specific strategy has not been established yet. 

The project has a $4 million budget, according to the Facilities website. Tuchman said while geothermal systems may have high upfront costs, long-term savings will be seen through lower utility bills.

“It makes for a good investment,” Tuchman said. “The return would come through energy savings, so our gas and electric bills would go way down because it doesn’t take very much energy to run a geothermal system once it’s built.”

An evaluation of the School of Environmental Sustainabilty’s existing geothermal system was conducted to assess the payback of geothermal wells from savings and Tuchman said it would take 13-15 years of using geothermal technology to forgive the initial price of its installation. 

Currently, the Institute of Environmental Sustainability building at Lake Shore Campus and LUREC — the Loyola University Retreat and Ecology Campus in Woodstock, Illinois — use geothermal systems for power. 

Director of Campus Operations at LUREC Kevin Ginty said the first phase of geothermal wells were drilled in 2016, replacing boilers installed in the 1950s. The system of wells works to heat and cool the north side of the campus which includes dorm rooms, the dining room, kitchen and meeting spaces. 

Ginty said the geothermal system has proved beneficial, requiring less maintenance, taking up less space and saving money on utility costs. 

“It’s a very reliable system and since we’ve installed it we’ve seen a 40% reduction in our natural gas bills,” Ginty said. 

Loyola has worked with Elara Engineering, a sustainable engineering consulting firm for the planning and installation of geothermal wells on campus. Don McLauchlan, principal and co-founder of Elara Engineering, said geothermal systems tend to be more efficient than other energy sources.

Geothermal wells utilize heat pump technology, which McLauchlan said means heat is extracted from the ground and rejected into buildings. Since ground temperatures in Chicago tend to be fairly consistent at 54-57 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, he said geothermal systems have more favorable results when powering buildings. 

Loyola Director of Sustainability Aaron Durnbaugh said implementation of geothermal systems across Loyola has paved the way for a new source of heat, allowing the university to move away from fossil-based natural gasses. 

“Loyola is working on our plan to completely decarbonize all of our campuses,” Durnbaugh said. “It’s not gonna happen overnight, but that’s what we’re working on right now — our plan to eliminate fossil gas from the campus.” 

As the IES fully employs geothermal technology to heat and cool, Durnbaugh said the building uses zero fossil fuels for cooling and less than 1% for heating. He said the small percentage of fossil fuel usage comes from an extra boiler which is only used during very harsh winter conditions. 

“Generally, geothermal can handle almost all of our heating needs,” Durnbaugh said. “During those cold polar vortexes, we run the risk of getting down below freezing because if you’re trying to grab heat out of the ground and bring it back into the building, it’s not heating up.” 

Facilities wrote about their commitment to transform the construction site into a biodiverse garden after construction is finished, which Tuchman said speaks to the School of Environmental Sustainability’s mission to diversify the land. She said while construction can wreck landscaping temporarily, there is a campus-wide initiative to preserve biodiversity.

“We always respect when the university is doing construction that it might tear up some trees or a beautiful garden area that we really value,” Tuchman said. “But Facilities and landscaping has been really good about going back in and allowing us to have input about the plants and where they could go to provide the best habitat.”

The continuous efforts for geothermal wells will address Loyola’s reliance on natural gasses which Henning said will set the stage for more climate goals to be achieved in the future. 

“This is only phase one of establishing a campus that is free from carbon and free from dependence on fossil fuels,” Henning said. “This project is marching us towards our goal for a carbon-free Loyola.” 

Featured image by Lilli Malone / The Phoenix

Laila Ali

Laila Ali