Saratoga County

College looks underground to heat, cool its buildings

Skidmore College has been honored with a Sustainability Leadership Award for expanding the use of ge
This geothermal “energy node†provides heat to the Arts Quad at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
This geothermal “energy node†provides heat to the Arts Quad at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.

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While performances entertain or enthrall audiences at Skidmore College, science and technology will be keeping them comfortable.

The college has been honored with a Sustainability Leadership Award for expanding the use of geothermal heating and cooling systems in its buildings.

The award, from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, is for a new “district” geothermal system the college installed to serve four buildings, including the multimillion-dollar Arthur Zankel Music Center that opened in 2009.

The private college of 2,400 students on North Broadway started using geothermal heating systems in 2006 when the college’s Northwoods Village apartments were completed. Every few years another college building has been equipped with a geothermal unit, a system that taps into the steady temperatures deep below the earth’s surface to reduce heating and cooling costs.

The newest geothermal project will connect the college’s entire Arts Quad — the Zankel Music Center, the Filene building, the Bernhard Theater and the renovated Saisselin art building. The system currently heats and cools Zankel Music Center, with connection to the Arts Quad in the near future.

A total of 84 geothermal wells will provide heating and cooling for these buildings when the system in completed in 2013, according to college officials.

Contractors drill down between 400 and 500 feet, right through Adirondack bedrock, to where the temperature is a constant 50 degrees. A geothermal system consists of a heat pump, indoor duct work and a heat exchanger, which is a system of sealed pipes, four or six inches in diameter, that pumps a mixture of water and antifreeze through a closed loop. In the winter, the pump moves heated air through the indoor air system. In the summer, the process is reversed and the pump moves warm air from indoors back down into the ground.

The college has continued to expand its use of geothermal as it replaces older heating systems.

Jared Fortna, senior engineer for Earth Sensitive Solutions LLC, which designed the Skidmore systems, said geothermal heating and cooling systems are not new.

“The technology has been around for 50 or 60 years,” Fortna said, “but in the last 10 years, it has really been making inroads. Colleges recognize their buildings will be around a long time.”

This means the systems have a long time to recoup the generally higher cost of installation.

Skidmore is just one of nearly a dozen colleges in the Northeast that have embraced geothermal technology, which also reduces the college’s carbon footprint.

“Our goal is to lessen Skidmore’s climate impact by using a renewable energy source and reducing our greenhouse emissions,” said Riley Neugebauer, Skidmore’s sustainability coordinator.

She said the existing geothermal system at Zankel Music Center has been so efficient that it never requires the use of a backup natural gas heating system.

“It covers the heating and cooling but not the domestic hot water use,” she said.

Fortna said, “Other [colleges] do one or two buildings. Skidmore is taking a more long-term approach.”

College officials want to have 50 percent of its square footage heated and cooled by geothermal by 2020, said Michael Hall, Skidmore’s director of planning and budgets. About 17 percent of the college is currently on geothermal systems.

Having geothermal installed is more expensive on the front end, Hall said. The systems don’t require gas or oil to run, but the electrical costs for motors and pumps are higher than in conventional heating systems.

“Overall there is a good net savings. We have probably cut our total natural gas budget by 25 percent,” Hall said.

He said, for example, the Murray-Aikins Dining Hall renovation in 2007 included a geothermal system.

“We have not had one drop of natural gas supplement. The geothermal is covering it completely,” Hall said.

The college is planning to include geothermal heating and cooling systems in a future addition to the college’s science building and a proposed new admissions building.

The systems will also be used in the new Scribner Village apartments under construction on campus.

The sustainability case study of Skidmore’s Arts Quad system says the total cost to install this system is just less than $2 million. The total includes the cost of engineering and design, equipment, drilling bores in the wellfield, digging and backfilling the wells and pipes.

The college received an $800,000 grant for the project from the state’s Higher Education Capital Matching Grant program through the state Dormitory Authority. The college is also expecting incentive funding for the project from National Grid and the New York State Energy, Research and Development Authority.

College officials said how much incentive funding has not yet been determined.

Having a district system means the larger geothermal wellfield will contribute to heating and cooling several buildings through one controlled system, according to the college case study.

Business has been good for Earth Sensitive Solutions, based in Skaneateles.

“We are booked solid. We have more opportunities than there are hours in the day,” Fortna said.

The colleges where geothermal has been installed include Empire State College, Hamilton College, Amherst College, Bard College, Ithaca College, SUNY Oswego, and Ball State University in Indiana. Empire State College added a geothermal heating and cooling system when it built its Center for Distance Learning at 113 West Ave. in Saratoga Springs several years ago.

David Henahan, an Empire State College spokesman, said the former Grand Union supermarket at 111 West Ave. that the college renovated and transformed into the college’s international studies center and other offices is also heated and cooled by geothermal technology.

Empire State College, the state university system’s non-traditional, distance-learning institution, has also used LEED technology (but not geothermal systems) in other buildings, such as the college’s administration building at 2 Union Avenue, Henahan said. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the national standard for energy efficiency as judged by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education presented its 2012 Leadership Award to Skidmore and three other schools in the association’s new category of campus sustainability case studies for four-year colleges with 10,000 or fewer full-time students.

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