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Argonne Turns Up the Heat with Geothermal Power at Visitor Center

The national laboratory recently installed an underground geothermal heating and cooling system to control temperatures in its visitors center.

Six hundred feet below the visitor center at winds a series of U-shaped pipes. 

A mixture of water and glycol courses through the channels, absorbing the earth’s temperature—a relatively steady 55 degrees—and bringing it to the surface.

The network of pipes is part of a new geothermal system that exploits the constantly renewable resource of the earth’s natural temperature to heat the visitor center in winter and cool it in the summer.

“It just makes sense,” said engineer and project manager Damian Dockery. “The ground is relatively infinite in size. We’re always going to have that potential energy there. We’re not going to change the temperature of that much mass.” 

Geothermal temperature control works by bringing that steady 55-degree temperature that it collects in the ground into the visitor’s heating and cooling system.

If it’s cold outside, Dockery said, the temperature control system will register the water as warm and it will help heat the air that’s ultimately pushed out of vents into the building. It works the opposite way in the summer, with the cool water helping to lower the warm air temperature.

President Obama signed an executive order in 2009 challenging federal agencies, including Department of Energy labs like Argonne, to meet a number of sustainability goals by 2020.

The DOE charged Argonne with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 28 percent by 2020 and producing 7.5 percent of the lab’s onsite power using renewable energy by 2013. 

The new geothermal system at Argonne’s visitor center will go a long way toward helping the lab achieve those goals. Harnessing geothermal power in that one location will reduce Argonne’s GHG emissions annually by 53 tons. 

There’s an economic incentive to geothermal heating as well. Argonne projects the system will save it about $4,000 in heating costs each year.

Even though reducing GHG emissions is a federal mandate, Dockery said it also just makes sense for an energy lab to be a leader in sustainability.

“It’s not written anywhere that we have to set an example, but why wouldn’t you?” he said. “For a national Department of Energy lab, it makes sense to push the envelope where we can.”

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