Students learn about geothermal energy project

Students learn about geothermal energy project

CHAMPAIGN – The problem: Explain geothermal heating and cooling so elementary school students can understand it.

The solution: Start with a cartoon.

Engineers were at Garden Hills Elementary School Friday afternoon to talk with students about the new geothermal system to be installed at the school. The system will provide a more efficient way to heat and cool the building, which will have air-conditioning for the first time when the work is done.

The assembly at the school started with a cartoon video to explain geothermal energy in kid-friendly terms.

Then Sylvia McIvor, sales manager for Energy Systems Group, which is overseeing the project, and Lonny Hoover of Urbana's Illinois Geothermal Engineering, who did the engineering design, talked more about the system.

Geothermal energy uses the earth to heat or cool fluid flowing through underground pipes. The Earth remains at a constant temperature of about 55 degrees several feet below its surface. If fluid colder than that is pumped underground, it absorbs heat from the earth. If the fluid is warmer than the surrounding earth, it loses heat.

A heat exchanger takes the heat from the water to heat the building. The chilled water is then sent back down into the ground to be warmed again. To cool the building, the process is reversed.

Installing the system involves drilling 98 holes in the ground around Garden Hills, between 270 and 300 feet deep and 5 inches in diameter. A 1-inch plastic pipe containing the fluid will go to the bottom of each well.

Garden Hills will end up having between 50,000 and 60,000 feet of pipe in the ground surrounding it to heat and cool the school.

"Have you had your hand around a glass of water with ice cubes in it? What happens to your hands? Do they get cold?" Hoover asked the students Friday, while showing them the pipe that will be used. "We're going to use the Earth like your hands around the pipe. It's going to warm up the water in this pipe."

One test well has already been drilled at Garden Hills, and the school is surrounded by wooden stakes marking where the others will be drilled. The drilling will begin next week.

Once the work is completed next spring, each classroom will have a control for the temperature in that room. The geothermal system will save an estimated 60 percent on energy costs to heat and cool the building. The $2.3 million project will be paid for with money from those energy savings.

"It's very interesting technology," Hoover said. "It's not as uncommon as you might think. So many schools right now are considering the technology."

The energy-efficiency work at Garden Hills also includes new lights and an increase in the electrical capacity for the building. The building had inefficient fluorescent lights that were replaced with lights with a more efficient ballast, McIvor said.

"The lighting quality is much much better," she said. "The spaces are brighter. The classrooms are brighter, the gymnasium is brighter, and it's much more efficient."

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