Metro, Politics, Newton

Public Facilities Committee Discusses Geothermal Energy

Representatives from Boston-based climate solutions nonprofit HEET, and Framingham’s Networked Geothermal Pilot Project met with Newton’s Public Facilities Committee Wednesday to discuss geothermal energy options for the city. 

Eversource, a New England energy provider, partnered with the city of Framingham for a Networked Geothermal Pilot Project seeking to install geothermal heating and water-circulating underground cooling loops, said Shawn Luz, the sustainability coordinator for the City of Framingham.

“Essentially, in our project, we have a series of four fields, which are just pipes going in the ground about 600 to 700 feet, and they create loops through which water is circulated,” Luz said. “Instead of each individual homeowner having their own geothermal system that connects to their building, we’re creating this network system where we have distributed bore fields.” 

According to HEET’s website, Eversource stated its intention to pilot three geothermal pilots based on HEET’s networked geothermal concept back in 2020. The results of the pilot projects will serve as examples of how to replace gas with renewable heating and cooling through shared-loop geothermal. 

Audrey Schulman, co-founder and co-executive director of HEET, explained that the circulation of water within these underground loops allows for heat energy to be taken from inside buildings and stored underground.

“You can store, for instance, heat in the ground in the summer, until you need it in the winter,” Schulman said. “And when the gas utilities do this … they move entire streets to decarbonize heating and cooling, but we’re moving from this ‘building by building transition’ to whole streets at a time.”

Geothermal energy is a cheaper alternative because fewer customers are paying for more infrastructure, according to Schulman. 

Luz also explained that heat pumps allow heat to be pulled from building to building so that the energy is being used in the most productive way.  

“You could send that [energy] to homes that are on the network,” Luz said. “If it wasn’t networked, that kind of energy exchange between buildings on the loop, in addition to pulling it from the ground … can’t really happen.” 

Eversource chose Framingham for its program because it was searching for a community that had a lot of diversity in the types of pre-existing heating fuels with a mix of customer loads. 

Framingham also supports soil that is especially conducive to this underground work, according to Luz.

“The mastic rock that Framingham has … depth [down] to bedrock,” Luz said. “The closer you are to that [bedrock], the more economical it is because it’s harder to drill through dirt than it is to go through rock with the equipment that they use.” 

Schulman said networked geothermal is a promising alternative to fossil fuel and that HEET continues to develop and progress in implementing this technology. 

“We have a research team in national labs and a whole bunch of others who will be creating integrated open-database normalized data,” Schulman said. “You need everybody doing their due diligence, and by having an open database, everybody can sort of check information and can learn from it as quickly as possible.”

Schulman expressed her hope that as the technology improves and becomes more cost-effective, geothermal can become a reality beyond just the pilot program communities. 

“Each install becomes better and better and cheaper to install and functions more efficiently,” Schulman said.

The pilot project is set to finish construction in Framingham sometime in the late summer, according to Luz. 

Following the discussion, Newton’s Public Facilities Committee decided to hold off the discussion about implementing geothermal energy until more data was available from the project.

April 5, 2024