The Biden administration is rethinking how homes are heated and cooled in the US, eyeing a tried-and-true, but thus far underutilized, climate solution to reduce planet-warming pollution and save homeowners money on energy costs.
To do it, the Department of Energy is tapping 11 communities around the US to spend the next year designing projects to harness below-ground, geothermal energy to heat and cool homes, libraries, community centers and other buildings.
On Tuesday, DOE will announce that the communities – which range in size from New York City to Nome, Alaska – have received the first round of funding to help them reimagine how our homes stay comfortable. Geothermal heating and cooling could eventually be brought into homes and buildings using heat pumps, which are highly efficient appliances that circulate warm or cool air through buildings, according to the department.
“That heat pump is basically run from heat in the ground,” Arlene Anderson, project manager for DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office, told CNN. “The fuel is basically the Earth source heat.”
It’s part of a multi-year, $13 million project to explore how geothermal heating and cooling could be applied not only in rural areas but densely populated cities. After their year-long design phase, DOE will select a smaller number of these projects to fully fund and deploy. Details of the project were shared first with CNN.
In the long run, the effort could help communities transition away from heating and cooling with energy from planet-warming fossil fuels. Residential energy use accounts for around 20% of the country’s climate emissions, and a large portion of that is from energy used to heat and cool homes.
DOE’s announcement comes as the administration aims to make good on President Joe Biden’s promise to slash US carbon pollution in half by 2030. To get there, it’s looking to significantly increase wind energy and ramp up the adoption of electric vehicles. The administration is also expected to announce soon an aggressive new power plant rule that could dramatically reduce emissions from both coal and natural gas fired power plants.
And the administration has found the climate potential of geothermal energy is huge. So far, it has only been used on a much smaller scale than other clean technologies like solar and wind. But a recent DOE report found geothermal energy for heating and cooling could reach 90 gigawatts by 2050, which would cut around 1 billion metric tons of planet-warming emissions – roughly the same amount as taking 20 million cars off the road per year.
US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the technology “will expand the uses of clean energy in decarbonizing our communities,” and added that geothermal heating and cooling “can go a long way in decarbonizing the building and electricity sectors.”
How geothermal could be used to heat and cool your home
Geothermal technology can be used for two things: to produce electricity or to generate heat and warmth. This project will focus on the latter.
To start the process, geothermal wells are drilled into the Earth – similar to a water well. The wells are outfitted with pipes which are installed in a closed loop so that water can circulate through them. That water is warmed up by the below-ground heat, and the warm water can then be used to power super-efficient heat pumps that push heat into or out of a building, depending on the season.
Some individual houses currently use geothermal heating and cooling systems like this, Anderson told CNN, but it’s much rarer in the US to have systems that can power entire neighborhoods.