To support the growing movement to electrify and decarbonize the nation’s building stock, the Illinois Geothermal Coalition centered at the University of Illinois just released a paper discussing how geothermal energy can help Midwesterners reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

If you’ve ever visited a hot spring, you have experienced geothermal heating. In central Illinois, we don’t have hot springs, but we do have a very stable underground temperature — at approximately 55 degrees — that offers a low-carbon, reliable and safe option for heating and cooling.

That matters because over half of our household energy consumption goes to conditioning the air in our buildings, and currently, most of that power supply comes from fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which escalate the climate changes well underway.

Shifting climate conditions, such as longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat/cold, negatively affect our environmental health, agricultural production, transportation infrastructure, and water and air quality.

While we definitely need to reduce energy consumption and use energy more efficiently, we also must find alternative energy sources. Geothermal is a mature energy technology that has offset the use of electricity, natural gas or liquid propane, lowering the costs for residential space heating, air conditioning and water heating.

Local sources of energy — like geothermal energy — are less susceptible to commodity price fluctuations and can withstand disruptions from natural or technological threats and hazards.

Since 2021, the city of Urbana has offered the Geothermal Urbana-Champaign program, a public education and bulk purchasing program that offers a more affordable way for homeowners and businesses in Champaign, Piatt and Vermilion counties to install geothermal heating and cooling systems. Through bulk purchasing, participants are offered a lower rate for installation than normally available.

Geothermal energy systems can be installed for new construction or retrofitting existing buildings to improve energy efficiency. Geothermal heat pumps use 25 to 50 percent less electricity than conventional heating or cooling systems, and thus reduce utility bills because they run efficiently year-round. These systems replace the need to own both a furnace and air conditioner by providing heating and cooling in a single piece of equipment; they can also make hot water.

Since the equipment is indoors or underground, there are fewer maintenance issues and little chance of damage from falling trees, for example. These systems do not emit carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide and help dehumidify indoor air.

Because geothermal technologies are not visible above ground, it’s hard to know they are there, but a few local examples, larger in scale than for single-family houses, are in operation:

  • The Campus Instructional Facility, built in 2021 at Springfield Avenue and Wright Street on the University of Illinois campus, uses geothermal energy to cover about 65 percent of the building’s energy needs.
  • Local school districts have put in these systems at several elementary schools for heating and cooling classrooms.
  • The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District installed a system in 2010 at its administration building.
  • The Windsor West Apartments on Fields South Drive in Champaign also uses geothermal energy.

While well-resourced people can shift energy consumption to geothermal sources, it isn’t nearly enough, of course. We need to train people for jobs in the geothermal industry that will address the current shortage of licensed drillers; we need to find ways to support more businesses, schools and housing projects to utilize this resource; and we need to make it affordable for more residents.

The equitable workforce development programs and initiatives being developed as part of Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act may be a model for job creation for this energy transition. We also need policy changes that recognize communities in holistic ways so that housing, education and employment are factored into our energy costs.

The group Blacks in Green is leading a coalition to create a promising community geothermal demonstration project in Chicago’s West Woodlawn neighborhood — Sustainable Chicago Geothermal. The group’s Sustainable Square Mile also features neighbor-owned green enterprises, affordable housing, walkable spaces, urban farms and heritage tourism that helps tell the story of the Great Migration.

We in Champaign-Urbana could bring this group’s “whole-system solutions” to our area, not only by expanding the use of geothermal technologies, but also by connecting with already-in-process cultural and social-justice efforts, such as the African American Heritage Trail and Randolph Street Community Garden.

Sharon Irish lives in Urbana and had a geothermal system installed in her home in 2022. She serves on the advisory committee for GeoUC 3.0.