ITHACA — In an effort reduce its carbon footprint, Cornell University is exploring an innovative renewable energy source to heat the campus as well as other measures to become carbon neutral by 2035.

In the fall, Cornell University released the report “Options for Achieving a Carbon Neutral Campus by 2035,” which outlined the problem as well as a number of solutions for the university to achieve carbon neutrality. The plan includes ways to reduce energy demand while investing in innovative renewable energy sources.

Cornell plans to use a renewable geothermal source of heat called “earth source heat.”

“It’s a big challenge that we’re taking on but we believe that Cornell in some sense could serve as a model, if we’re successful that this could be replicated, and in a way is a pathway to use weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, which as you know is a major contributor to climate change,” Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at Cornell.

On Tuesday, Collins, faculty and some members of the Cornell University Senior Leaders Climate Action Group held a panel at Hotel Ithaca to take questions from the community. Several community members raised questions about how drilling down for heat compared to fracking. Others wondered where Cornell would drill and would any neighbors be bothered by the noise? Here are a few key highlights from the discussion.

What is earth source heat?

Earth source heat is an engineered system used to access the natural thermal energy of the Earth. Wells would be drilled into the basement rock, which is more than two miles below the surface. They will drill until they reach temperatures near or above the boiling point of water about 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Water circulated through the wells returns to the surface as hot water for campus heating and potential electricity production.

Earth source heat would ideally deliver the majority of heat needed for the campus. However, an energy system using biomass – using local wood or non-food energy crops — would be used to meet additional heating needs. Biomass is converted to a gas and could be used in a retooled facility, such as a combined heat and power plant.

A combination of wind, water and solar power will be used to meet campus electrical needs.

What Cornell will be pursuing with earth source heat differs from geothermal heat, which is widely used on the West Coast and in Iceland. In areas such as those that have a lot of tectonic activity, the lava tends to be closer to the surface, Collins said, so it’s not necessary to drill very deep to get it.

“What we’re doing on the East Coast in some sense is more challenging. We’ll have to drill deeper … but what’s interesting about it is that if we’re successful, it would allow this technology to be deployed much more widely than the current existing technology. And for that reason, there’s a potential of us creating a new industry,” Collins said.

Source: Sustainable Campus/Cornell University

What is Cornell’s carbon footprint today?

Cornell is responsible for about 214,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent annually, according to the report. That’s before accounting for upstream methane leakage, an estimated 580,000 metric tons of CO2.

Becoming “carbon neutral” would mean reducing those emissions to zero.

Campus energy needs account for about two-thirds of emissions. Transportation is the next largest chunk of emissions at about 26 percent.

What other ways will Cornell be reducing its carbon footprint?

Cornell will continue to invest in high-performance, LEED-certified buildings and conserve energy in existing buildings. The university will also increase electric vehicle capacity by expanding charging stations (there are six now). The university will also educate students about climate change. The report says Cornell should ensure all students, and ideally all members of the campus community, have basic literacy in climate change, including “an understanding of their influence on climate and climate’s influence on them and society.”

What is the timeline of this project?

From the report:

2017: Energy conservation; building standards; campus engagement; climate literacy; fleet solutions; Earth Source Heat test well; heat pump evaluations; renewable power projects

2022: Begin full ESH, if viable or alternate GSHP option; revise Climate Action Plan, including new energy path forward

2027: Fully implement campus heating solution; advance other carbon reduction efforts

2035: Reach carbon neutrality with full participation from the campus community

How will this impact the Ithaca community?

A community member asked where exactly Cornell will drill and how the noise and drilling might impact property values. Panelists said the drilling would take place on campus, likely as central as possible, therefore it would not impact the community. It may even just look like a shed, one panelist said.

A question about seismicity also branched off that question. Katie Keranen, Cornell faculty member and seismologist, said the university has started initial baseline studies looking at seismicity in the region to guide where to put the drill. Keranen said they will continue to study and monitor seismicity moving forward, too.

Doesn’t this sound a bit like fracking? What’s the difference?

To some in the community, hearing Cornell plans to drill thousands of feet into the ground and inject water, rings similar to hydraulic fracturing methods.

Explaining the drilling process, Collins said there won’t just be a hole in the ground, there will be a casing made up of cement and steel, to insulate everything inside the pipe (the water circulating) from everything in the ground, including the Marcellus Shale deposit and any groundwater. The casing will be designed to ensure they are not contaminating the groundwater and also not leaking any of the trapped gas part of the Marcellus Shale.

After seeing the image of the cement and steel pipe in the presentation, an anti-fracking activist raised concerns about the method, saying “all pipes leak.”

Cornell professor Tony Ingraffea, who was in the audience, said no system is foolproof and all systems eventually fail. What the picture of the cement and steel pipe did not show, Ingraffea said, is that all potential flow zones, like the Marcellus Shale, will also be isolated by cement and by multiple levels of casing. He also said Cornell will use technology invented by the oil and gas companies to detect potential problems before they happen.

Jeff Tester, Croll Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell, said there are fundamental differences between fracking and geothermal operation. He said first they are drilling down not to produce hydrocarbons, but to produce low-pressure water. He also said they will be focused on creating a long-lasting well.

“The whole intent of any geothermal operation is to ensure longevity. In a gas fracking system, you’re basically done with that system fairly quickly in terms of the production lifetime. This is built to be sustainable, both from the point of view of heat production as well as from the point of view of well integrity and circulation. We pay a lot to deliver this heat to the surface through drilling so there’s a real vested interested to do it right,” Tester said.

Read the full report released in April here.

Featured image: From left, Robert Howarth, Todd Cowen and Sarah Zemanick participate in a panel about Cornell’s carbon neutrality goal March 28, 2017. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.