These drills will bore 650 feet into the earth as part of Indie Energy’s project to heat and cool geothermally two dorms at Garrett Theological Seminary on Sheridan Road. Photo by Mary Mumbrue

The parking lot just south of Garrett Theological Seminary on Sheridan Road, crowded with large machines and enclosed by temporary high fencing looks like just another university construction site. But when this construction is completed, the parking lot will look the same, and the physical project – heating and cooling two buildings geothermally – will be out of sight and for the most part underground. Electricity to run the circulating pumps will be the only additional energy source needed.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky visited Garrett Theological Seminary last week, stopping first at the parking lot Indie Energy is drilling toward the center of the earth.

“Geothermal energy provides a sustainable source of energy that’s very clean and saves a lot of money,” said Daniel Cheifetz, cofounder and CEO of Indie Energy. His company uses ground-source geothermal, he said, taking advantage of the solar energy absorbed by the earth and the constant temperature there and using heat-exchange mechanisms to condition the interior air of a building.

“Twenty-seven bore holes, each 650 feet deep, will heat and cool the two dorms,” Mr. Cheifetz added. Geothermal heating and cooling takes advantage of the constant temperature – about 53 degrees F in Chicago – below the surface of the earth. Loops of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are placed in the holes and filled with a mixture of water and a food-grade antifreeze that is circulated between the loops in the ground and the building, said Mr. Cheifetz. A heat exchange of about 8 degrees F is amplified to either heat the air in winter or cool it in summer, making the air within the buildings comfortable year-round, he added. Initial costs, though, can be steep and the payback can take up to 10 years for retrofits. For new construction, though, the payback period can be as little as two years, because of tax credits and other incentives, said Mr. Cheifetz.

The Garrett project holds significant startup costs – a premium for geothermal over conventional heating and cooling, said Arnold Henning, vice president for business and chief financial officer at Garrett. But the length of the life of the system – it should last for 50 to 100 years, Mr. Cheifetz said – and the fact that the seminary will save at least 50 percent of its energy bills and is using green technology appear to have offset concerns about initial costs.

The seminary has a total of about 500 full- and part-time students, Mr. Henning said. Even though numbers are declining at seminaries throughout the country, Garrett’s fall enrollment is “looking pretty good,” he said.

By next spring, students and faculty will have not only newly heated and cooled, but also newly redesigned, buildings, said Mr. Henning: The dormitory was “upgraded from 100 beds to 42 beds, each with a private bath.” A second, smaller dormitory, was reconfigured to extend existing library and office space, he said.

“We’re all very excited about the project,” he said. “It’s been well received by faculty and staff,” he added.

 “The system allows you to quit burning fossil fuel, but you still need some electric grid energy to run the equipment,” Mr. Cheifetz said. “To be completely green, you could buy that electricity from wind farms. But even without that, you reduce cost and reduce the carbon footprint with geothermal energy.”

Rep. Schakowsky questioned Mr. Cheifetz about the applicability of geothermal energy to other buildings and in other areas.

Robert Olden, vice president of engineering for Indie Energy, said, “Geothermal heating allows you to take advantage of peaks of energy use and diversity of building uses. We figure that this parking lot and the adjoining parking lot would handle all of Garrett.”

“Geothermal heating can be used for individual homes, multi-unit buildings and buildings as large as millions of square feet,” Mr. Cheifetz.

The drills for the project are made in Sweden, said Erik Larson, executive vice president of Indie Energy. “We had to made modifications to make it code-compliant and make it clean,” he added.  

“Do you see a time when we could make that kind of machine in this country?” asked the Congresswoman.

“Absolutely,” said Mr. Larson.

“Some people have given up on these manufacturing jobs, and that’s just crazy,” said Rep. Schakowsky. “This is very exciting green technology, and the partnership with the federal government is exactly what we need to help private sector innovation. I’m very proud that this technology is right here in Evanston,” she added.