Geothermal Is Paying Off in Some Berkeley County Schools

Sep 22, 2017

We hear a lot about coal and natural gas in West Virginia - even solar and wind. But what about geothermal energy? Science indicates West Virginia is the largest geothermal hotspot on the east coast. So why don’t we hear more about it? Well, some counties in West Virginia have been pushing the envelope for a future in geothermal energy use…like in a handful of public schools.

Tuscarora Elementary School

At Tuscarora Elementary School in Berkeley County, kindergarten teacher Lori Carr is revelling in her revamped classroom. Her school recently underwent a massive renovation to become a greener, more energy efficient school.

“When I first started here, we were a completely open-concept school," she said, "We made our classrooms with bookshelves; shelves, whatever we could. We were always worried about, you know, the class next door; were we bothering them, were we too loud, could we hear them?”

Kindergarten teacher Lori Carr does a learning exercise with her students.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

An open-concept, or open-spaced school is just what it sounds like - a school building that features big, open, adjustable spaces instead of divided, walled-off rooms. It was a  popular design in the 1970s.

But it takes a lot of energy to heat, cool, and light that large, open space.

So, over the past year, Tuscarora and several schools like it in Berkeley County were transformed in hopes of saving energy. The schools got new walls, doors, LED lighting, and...retro-fitted geothermal heat pumps.

Outside the school, on its front lawn and beside the parking lot, the ground is now covered in straw to help the grass grow back. That's because 42 wells were built there this summer – each 400 feet deep.

“So essentially what happens is, there is a pipe that runs from that well field behind where those cars are parked there, the length of that, and then comes up underneath this parking lot here, and comes right into that room," said Tuscarora Elementary School Principal Tyler Long.

Off to the side of the school, there's a small, stone building that holds the school’s lawnmowers and other equipment, and now also houses Tuscarora’s geothermal heat pump system, which isn’t that big – the system looks like it could fit into a large closet or shed.

A constant, soft buzzing sound is the most you’ll hear from one of these systems, because it makes no noise inside the school – no whooshing as it kicks the air on. The air coming into the school is regulated by a closed loop system of pipes that is in turn regulated by Earth’s constant 55 degree Fahrenheit temperature.

Tuscarora Elementary School's geothermal heat pump system.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Principal Long also points out that the air quality in the building has improved.

“It’s a tremendous savings financially, but it’s also very energy efficient, so it’s a savings to the environment as well," Long said, "And from a selfish standpoint, I mean, the school has been taken from an open concept school that’s slowly evolved over the years to, essentially, a 41-year-old brand new school. So, for myself, my students, and my teachers, you can’t ask for anything better.”

Geothermal in Berkeley County Schools

Tuscarora is one of seven elementary schools in Berkeley County sporting geothermal heating and cooling systems. Six of which were installed within the past year.

Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon is the driving force behind the geothermal initiative in the county. A year ago, Arvon hired the sustainable building company, CMTA Engineer Consulting, to lead the projects.

CMTA not only installed six of those seven geothermal systems, but it also replaced every single light bulb with LEDs in each of Berkeley’s 32 school buildings – a total of 25,000 bulbs. And each building got some sort of energy system update – like new boilers or chillers.

Arvon says switching to greener technologies like geothermal was a no-brainer, because of one, environmental impact and two, cost savings in a county with a population that doesn’t seem to stop growing.

“We had to look at money that we were already spending and how we could recapture that money and respend it in a way that would be progressive," Arvon said, "It would take care of problems that are facing us, and it would generate dollars, but not new dollars.”

Berkeley County Schools expect the geothermal system will cut electricity bills county-wide by almost 40 percent annually - from about $5.5 million down to $3.5 million.

Arvon says the systems will pay for themselves in 15 years - and should last more than 50 years.

“We will be building a lot of schools in the future," Arvon noted, "and we will take what we have learned and incorporate that in every plan that we make.”

Arvon says he plans to install geothermal heating and cooling systems into every new school building built in Berkeley County.

According to the West Virginia Department of Education, Webster and Pocahontas Counties also have geothermal technology installed in some of their schools. Additionally, Monongalia County's Eastwood Elementary School has geothermal technology. Webster County High School was the first West Virginia school to have geothermal installed back in 1997.

Tuscarora Elementary School in Berkeley County where a new, retro-fitted geothermal heat pump system was installed summer 2017.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Bigger Future for Geothermal Energy in the Mountain State?

But more than just West Virginia schools – is geothermal energy something the entire state could eventually tap into? Geological researchers at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas seem to think so.

According to research published in the online-magazine Science in 2010 , the Mountain State has areas of earth as warm as 200 degrees Celsius and as shallow as 5 kilometers, that’s a little more than 16,000 feet. And researchers say some of those spots may actually be warmer than first reported a decade ago.

The geothermal heat pumps in places like Berkeley County schools use a different type of technology that doesn’t dive as deep. But West Virginia is beginning to study the potential of tapping into deeper geothermal energy.

The official state geologist Michael Hohn of the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey says while the potential for deeper geothermal drilling and research is there – demand is just too low right now.

“Currently, the deep geothermal resource is still more expensive than coal or natural gas," Hohn explained, "so right now, the market is driving us to use – especially with the discovery of so many natural gas resources.”

That said - Hohn points out that West Virginia University is currently investigating the possibility of utilizing this deeper geothermal energy to power its entire campus.

But for now, it looks like geothermal projects in West Virginia will look more like the ones in Berkeley County. Hohn thinks the use of geothermal, both the shallow and deep forms, will one day be in much higher demand and play a larger role in West Virginia’s energy mix.

*Editor's Note: This story originally did not include Monongalia as a county in West Virginia with geothermal heat pump systems in some of its public schools. The article has been updated to correct the mistake.