Montana State University

Crews begin geothermal test bores on MSU campus

August 10, 2012 -- Sepp Jannotta - MSU News Service

In preparation for drilling a 500-foot-deep hole to test the geothermal properties on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, George Forester and Dogan Lea work to ready the drilling rig, while Stan Williams prepares additional equipment for unloading at the site. The Betram Drilling crew and contractor Energy 1 of Bozeman are scheduled to be on campus until Aug. 21 while they complete the drilling and testing of six bore holes. MSU Photo - Sepp Jannotta   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN - Montana State University is taking a first step this month in exploring the use of geothermal-based heating and cooling as a way to reduce energy consumption and costs on campus with the drilling of a half dozen test bore holes.

"Geothermal energy is among the most practical and scalable renewable energy sources," said Dan Stevenson, assistant director of MSU Facilities Services. "The geothermal test bores are the first step in analyzing how this technology will fit into our overall energy plan."

After six holes are drilled, MSU's College of Engineering will run tests on each location. Their locations would allow them to be incorporated into any future system of wells delivering geothermal-based heating and cooling into MSU buildings, Stevenson said.

The use of geothermal energy in conjunction with other technologies could significantly cut the university's consumption of natural gas and electricity, Stevenson said. Currently, MSU spends $2.7 million a year in burning natural gas to generate the steam that is piped throughout campus to heat buildings; meanwhile, the electricity that powers everything from lights and computers in classrooms to laboratories to the air conditioning systems that cool many buildings costs MSU $3.3 million annually.

Stevenson pointed out that geothermal is just one of the measures that Facilities Services is taking toward implementing a comprehensive energy plan. Crews have been busy upgrading windows and lighting in buildings across campus as part of an efficiency plan aimed at trimming an expected $370,000 annually from the university's expenses.

"What we're doing now will set the pace for energy conservation and consumption on campus the next half century and beyond," he said.

Due to previous efficiency efforts, MSU's electricity and natural gas use is 3 percent less today than it was in 2007, in, despite the growth of campus by nearly 234,000 square feet, Stevenson said.

"Conservation is always the foundation of a responsible energy plan," he added. "The least expensive form of energy is that which is conserved", says Stevenson.

MSU is also moving to an innovative heating and cooling system in Leon Johnson Hall, which will reclaim heat from spaces that are too warm and transport it to areas that are too cool. Known as a simultaneous heating and cooling energy plant, the system was designed by CTA Architect Engineers and is being installed by 4G's Plumbing and Heating. The project is part of a larger push to improve the energy efficiency of the research building by nearly 50 percent, Stevenson said.

The new energy plant in Leon Johnson is designed to be extended to nearby buildings to provide the same energy sharing benefits to them and further increasing campus efficiency. Stevenson said Facilities Services is studying the technology for possible use in additional areas of campus.

"One of the most intriguing opportunities with this type of plant is its ability to accept energy sources such as geothermal- and solar-generated energy in the future" says Stevenson.

The new College of Business facility is one of the buildings likely to be included in a heating-and-cooling district served by the Leon Johnson energy exchange plant, Stevenson said. Once an underground infrastructure is in place connecting the two, they could likely also share in use of a geothermal heating and cooling exchange system. Facilities Services and the design team for the new College of Business are looking at what technologies will be used for the HVAC - heating, ventilation and air conditioning - system in that building, Stevenson said.

"It is almost certainly going to be a mix of things that will offer a more efficient use of energy," Stevenson said. "And I think some use of geothermal is very likely to end up as one of the components in the HVAC system for the College of Business."

Work on the test bores began Wednesday, Aug. 8, with Bozeman renewable energy company Energy 1and Bertram Drillers drilling the first hole at Dobie Lambert intramural fields west of the Hedges Suites. Drilling is expected to wrap up on Aug. 21, the day before the campus' residents halls open.

The six bore holes will be drilled in four locations: Dobie Lambert fields, the Antelope parking lots, the field southeast of MSU's tennis courts, and north of Wilson Hall near the future site of MSU's College of Business. Reaching depths of 500 feet, the 6-inch-diameter test bores will have pipe installed and be sealed in grout.

Kevin Amende, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and head of the College of Engineering's HVAC systems laboratory, said ground-transfer energy works effectively in Montana where constant ground temperatures are warmer than the typical winter temperatures, and cooler than usual summer temperatures.

A closed-loop ground-source system - no groundwater is moved through the pipe - uses a pump to run water through tubing installed in the well. Underground, the water is warmed in winter and cooled in summer. It would then be used to either cool or warm air in a building.

The testing is necessary due diligence given that a geothermal well field represents a significant infrastructure expense, Amende said.

In addition to taking measure of how different locations transfer thermal energy, Amende said the testing process will allow his lab to determine the performance of two different piping configurations - a standard single u-bend loop system, and a double u-bend pipe system made from a polymer PEXa pipe donated by REHAU, a global materials manufacturer. The two will be tested side by side in a couple of locations.

Amende said the process also offers another invaluable opportunity: "Students have a chance to be working with a technology that will play an increasingly important role how we think about heating our homes and workplaces, not to mention how much we pay for it."

A group of engineering students will take part in the process of attaching testing equipment to the systems. After recording 48 hours of data, six students in Gov. Brian Schweitzer's Energy Intern program will analyze the data, which will be evaluated in conjunction with a geologic profile of each boring.

It is the kind of experience that could land a COE graduate a job at Energy 1, said Mike Foran, the company's president: "We have a few people on our staff - a lead designer and a couple of project managers - who came through the College of Engineering at MSU and we keep them busy doing projects like this from coast to coast."

Blake Bjornson of Whitefish, a senior in the mechanical engineering program and a former student body president who has been working on the geothermal project as an Undergraduate Scholars Program intern for Facilities Services, said he is excited to be getting experience that would put him in position for a job in renewable energy.

"This is a great opportunity for students, undergraduates especially, to be working hands-on with an application which is going to be very import in the future," he said.

But Bjornson said he is mostly inspired by the project because it is a step toward reducing MSU's fossil fuel consumption.

"It makes sense economically because it will save MSU money," Bjornson said. "But it also fits in with campus goals about resource stewardship, as well as with (President Waded Cruzado's) commitment to making our campus more sustainable."

For more information about MSU\'s strategic energy plan and the integration of geothermal energy at the Bozeman Campus, contact Dan Stevenson at (406)994-5470 or For more information about MSU\'s research into ground-source heat exchange HVAC systems, contact Kevin Amende at (406) 994-6304 or