IGSHPA July Town Hall: GeoMicroDistricts
The International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA) held their July Town Hall last week where many joined virtually to hear about Massachusetts’ incredibly innovative GeoMicroDistrict pilot program. The webinar featured Co-Executive Directors of The Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET), Audrey Schulman and Zeyneb Magavi, along with Nikki Bruno, Director of Clean Technologies at Eversource Energy. The unlikely partnership between a nonprofit and a utility company has perked ears as they pave the way for clean energy using an innovative idea they’ve coined ‘GeoMicroDistricts’.
HEET PAVES THE WAY
HEET is a nonprofit organization committed to cutting emissions by driving systems change. The movement started as a small group of people focused on making their homes more energy efficient. It has since evolved into a mission to cut methane and natural gas use for space and water heating. They first tackled gas leaks by working with utilities and allies to design an ongoing Shared Action Plan that formalizes data exchange, repair verification, and reassessing methods of addressing large volume leaks.
As HEET’s efforts continued, they concluded that leaking and burning gas will not allow the state to reach their climate goals. Looking for a way to support Massachusetts’ ‘Zero Emissions by 2050’ goal while avoiding a total collapse of the gas infrastructure, the HEET Team developed their biggest idea yet: GeoMicroDistricts. GeoMicroDistricts are made up of networked geothermal boreholes, connected by a shared loop in the current gas right-of-way that provides thermal energy to customer buildings. While geothermal heat pump systems have long been a proven technology in the United States, the interconnection of GeoMicroDistricts on such a scale is a relatively new idea.
According to HEET, this allows for piecemeal replacement of the current gas system so that block-by-block, clean, renewable energy can work independently, then interconnect to the system on the next block as it is built. It also results in much greater energy efficiency through load sharing and cancelling, is expected to cut electric grid peaks, and provide cheap, long term energy storage.
AN UNLIKELY PARTNERSHIP
HEET’s next challenge was to get a Massachusetts utility on board. They developed a rough drawing of a GeoMicroDistrict and asked the gas utilities to take a chance on their idea. As a result, the utilities asked for a feasibility study that would answer key questions about interconnection, economies of scale, load sharing and thermal storage. The study, performed by Buro Happold Engineering, presented promising results - including uncovering that energy load is closest to balance in High Density Mixed-Use areas, offering the best opportunity for energy efficiency.
Eversource is New England’s largest energy provider, serving more than 3.6 million customers in CT, MA and NH. The company has been recognized as one of the most sustainable energy companies in the nation with ambitious carbon neutrality goals. Knowing this, it only makes sense that Eversource was the first utility to join forces with HEET, creating an unlikely partnership between a gas utility and a nonprofit focused on electrification.
While the two might seem contradictory, the partnership makes sense. As outlined by Nikki Bruno during the webinar, many similarities exist between geothermal and natural gas businesses. Both are:
Long Lived Assets
Monitoring System Conditions
Similar Customer Barriers
Similar Point of Common Coupling
THE PILOT PROGRAM
Ready to put HEET’s idea to the test, Eversource developed a pilot program that would test the viability of geothermal networks in dense urban environments of Massachusetts. The pilot program would be an opportunity for Eversource to answer key technical and financial questions in order to decide whether to roll out GeoMicroDistricts as a larger offering. Their program is aimed at collecting data that would help answer key questions:
The next step for the pilot program is to find the right sites. Eversource expects to choose top sites by the Fall and then will approach customers within that site to willingly participate in the program. Eversource will pay for the infrastructure development and the equipment necessary for participating buildings to connect to and use the system.
A GREAT EXAMPLE FOR OTHER STATES
Both the pressure of decarbonization and the urgency of the aging gas infrastructure has accelerated the need for renewable technologies like geothermal heat pumps and GeoMicroDistricts. Following Eversource and HEET’s efforts, this ground-breaking initiative has gained traction in other states as well. Over $30 million has been committed in 2021 to demonstrate this technology – including projects in New York and Connecticut.
The Pennsylvania Geothermal Heat Pump Association is eager to see Pennsylvania make similar commitments and utilize the many benefits of geothermal heat pumps to accelerate climate change initiatives.