Geo-exchange system to generate renewable heating, cooling


As the University of Michigan makes continued progress toward universitywide carbon neutrality, a geo-exchange facility adjacent to the Leinweber Computer Science and Information Building is planned to supply the building’s heating and cooling.


As a product of the project, the Leinweber Building on North Campus will be all electric, and the first large-scale university building to not rely on natural gas for heating. 

The Board of Regents approved the project, which is expected to cost $20 million and conclude in the winter of 2025, during its Feb. 17 meeting. 

Geo-exchange systems, which are similar to more widely known geothermal systems, use the Earth’s constant subsurface temperature as a low-grade energy source. They can be used as either a heat-sink in the summer or low-grade heat source in the winter, thus maximizing energy efficiency.

Because these systems do not burn fossil fuels, they can be an effective resource for institutions seeking to reduce their climate impact.

“Meaningful climate action is integral to our mission to serve the people of Michigan and the world,” President Mary Sue Coleman said. “It’s on us to develop innovative approaches and build on our leading research and operations. I’m confident that the Leinweber Building geo-exchange project will give U-M the opportunity to build on this promising energy source, and to chart the way for like-minded institutions around the world.”

U-M’s carbon neutrality efforts encompass direct campus emissions, purchased electricity and extended-impact sources. The university is committed to wholly eliminating its direct emissions by 2040. In line with recommendations from the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, installing geo-exchange district energy systems is a central strategy toward this goal. 

The Leinweber geo-exchange facility, which will be constructed on Hayward Street, will serve as an initial project as the university continues to evaluate additional geo-exchange heating and cooling opportunities on campus. U-M also is launching a utility master planning process on North Campus to investigate how to decarbonize the campus’ heating and cooling infrastructure.

Currently, U-M is sourcing approximately half of the Ann Arbor campus’ purchased energy — 200,000 million kilowatt-hours per year — from renewable energy. By 2025, the university expects to procure 100 percent of its purchased electricity from renewable sources, thereby achieving net-zero emissions from purchased power.

“The decarbonization of buildings requires a multifaceted approach,” said Drew Horning, special adviser to the president for carbon neutrality strategy. “The Leinweber geo-exchange facility will help reduce our campus emissions while complementing U-M’s renewable-power purchase agreements and future work to procure emissions-free electricity. Together, these efforts drive progress toward an ultimately carbon-free campus.”

Additional features of the project include:

  • One hundred borings, spaced 20 feet apart with underground piping to a depth of 700 feet, across an area approximately two-thirds the size of a football field. 
  • A 4,000-square-foot heating and cooling auxiliary building located near the borings, which could interconnect with subsequent geo-exchange systems as they are planned and built. 
  • An enclosed-loop system, meaning the project will have no contact with groundwater or soils.

The system will be located underground and there will be a temporary loss of some adjacent parking during construction.

SmithGroup, in collaboration with Strategic Energy Solutions, will design the project, which is expected to provide an average of 18 on-site construction jobs.

Broader carbon neutrality work remains on course. Last month, U-M unveiled $5 million in energy conservation measures, including substantial LED lighting projects, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning improvements that span U-M campuses and units.

Each project is funded by a central revolving energy fund created to support U-M’s carbon neutrality commitment. Upcoming webinars also are in development on topics like energy conservation measures and improving building standards.


Leave a comment

Commenting is closed for this article. Please read our comment guidelines for more information.