We see promise in geothermal heating and cooling

Borehole drilling is first part of National Grid five-year pilot

CLIMATE CHANGE is real.  Also real is that each of us can act.  We are at a critical moment to make lasting change, particularly in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that come from how we heat our homes and businesses.  After all, building heat represents more than a quarter of total carbon emissions.

EARTHDAY.ORG , the organizer of Earth Day, this year launched “Earth Week” in honor of the theme: Invest in Our Planet.  This Earth Week, National Grid and UMass Lowell  embarked on a critical step of investing in our planet by breaking ground on the first geothermal borehole on UMass Lowell’s campus.

A geothermal network uses piping and pumps to pull the Earth’s heat out of the ground to warm buildings in winter and pump heat from buildings back into the ground to cool them in the summer.

The borehole groundbreaking is the first step in studying the properties of the bedrock that sits below campus. National Grid will use the information gathered from these boreholes to help determine how a geothermal heat pump system can be used to provide carbon-free heating and cooling to parts of UMass Lowell and a selection of National Grid customers in the surrounding area.

This is the first site selected under National Grid’s geothermal pilot, which was approved by the state regulators in late 2021. As part of National Grid’s plan to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the five-year geothermal demonstration program will evaluate the potential for networked geothermal energy systems to provide highly efficient space heating and cooling to homes and businesses as an alternative to natural gas.

National Grid plans to install and operate geothermal networks at up to four separate locations across Massachusetts, serving a group of customers having diversity in size and use. Natural gas customers will be given priority status for program participation.

The program is designed to explore how geothermal networks can be used to eliminate aging cast-iron leak-prone pipe from National Grid’s gas network, assist with gas system supply constraints, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in low income and environmental justice communities.

While this technology is new, National Grid’s workforce has the knowledge to successfully implement this initiative. National Grid’s frontline union gas workers in Massachusetts are uniquely qualified to help enable this clean energy transition with skills that are transferrable to maintaining geothermal systems.

Electrification is the cornerstone of the energy transition.  National Grid envisions that most buildings will be electrified by 2050 and significant energy efficiency will eliminate a full one-third of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.  Geothermal is an important component of that plan and we’re grateful to UMass Lowell for being part of the research that helps bring it to fruition.

Today, National Grid owns and operates a pipeline distribution network that provides fuel to and powers homes and businesses across the Northeast, meeting customer’s needs on the coldest day. To meet our collective climate goals, the existing pipeline system will need to be smaller and repurposed to help customers through this energy transition.

The prospect of geothermal heating and cooling to support decarbonization is tremendously promising, but will still require improvements to both technology performance as well as increases in public awareness and consumer acceptance before it can become the energy powerhouse we need it to be.  This week’s groundbreaking in Lowell is one step towards that progress.

Stephen Woerner is president of National Grid New England.