Learning From the Ground Up

November 23, 2022

In Framingham, Massachusetts, two University of California Berkeley scientists, a New Hampshire driller and a climate nonprofit director stare down the same 600 foot borehole. This unlikely crew is gathered on an Eversource Gas worksite, where the gas utility is installing an energy system to heat and cool homes—without gas. 

HEET, a Massachusetts climate nonprofit, has been planning this moment for years. 

HEET first pitched this energy system, known as networked geothermal, as a clean heat business model to gas utilities in 2017. Networked geothermal accesses the natural temperature of the earth and distributes it through pipes filled with water. In Framingham, it will heat and cool over forty homes and businesses, including low-income housing managed by the Framingham Housing Authority. 

“The City of Framingham recognizes the critical role that innovative clean energy technologies will play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, advancing long-term energy security, and providing direct benefits to residents and businesses,” said Shawn Luz, Sustainability Coordinator at Framingham. “As part of our ongoing efforts to advance local sustainability and resiliency, we are proud to collaborate with Eversource and HEET in the development of networked geothermal in Framingham that will support our community and pave the way for the future of this technology in the Commonwealth and across the country.” 

UCBerkeley researchers Sumeet Sinha and Yaobin Yang read data from a fiber optic cable.

In preparation for utility-run systems like the one in Framingham to become a reality, HEET has convened top scientists and experts from across the country to evaluate networked geothermal as a viable pathway to zero-emissions heating and cooling. Massachusetts Clean Energy Center awarded HEET a $5 million grant for the multi-year research effort, which HEET is calling Learning From the Ground Up. Participating researchers are from institutions including Boston University, MIT, Salem State University, University of California Berkeley, National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

“Clean heating and cooling is an important driver of achieving the Commonwealth’s 2050 net zero goals, and the results of this groundbreaking study will help determine how networked geothermal energy can contribute to building decarbonization,” said Jennifer Daloisio, CEO at MassCEC. “We are excited to support HEET in this nation-leading research.” 

To preserve scientific independence, the research will be carried out without any contribution from utilities, utility personnel, or the fossil fuel or geothermal industry. 

Researchers will study multiple installations as they go in the ground and for the first years of operation. The team will provide design reviews for each project, monitor and model system installation and operation, identify cost drivers and barriers to adoption, recommend opportunities to improve efficiency and equity, and provide recommendations for scaling networked geothermal throughout the state. A key part of the research will include launching feasibility studies for interested communities. Data will be shared widely through a public data bank. 

“The results and lessons learned from this project will help people in Massachusetts and other states to implement the district ground source heat pump systems in many buildings. Considering more than 100 million existing buildings in the US that could be retrofitted with the district GHP systems, the potential impacts of this project could be very significant,” said Xiaobing Liu, Senior Researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

In Massachusetts, networked geothermal is gaining recognition as a key pathway to achieve the state’s 2050 net-zero emissions goals. Other states who have made such climate commitments are closely watching the technology as a potential future business model. And as energy prices surge across the globe, utility-run networked geothermal stands to become a national model for achieving energy independence and distributing affordable clean energy. 

“Networked geothermal is one of the many innovative technologies that can help achieve the commonwealth’s decarbonization goals and advance a clean energy future,” said Eversource Vice President of Clean Technologies Nikki Bruno. "We’re incredibly proud of our collaboration with the forward-thinking leaders at HEET on these efforts, which also includes the important work through our Shared Action Plan to address gas leaks, and we look forward to applying the lessons learned through this research to further maximize the benefits of networked geothermal for all customers." 

While Eversource Gas is the first gas utility permissioned by the Department of Public Utilities to install networked geothermal, multiple projects and feasibility studies are moving forward across the country. National Grid Gas has been approved to install four more networked geothermal systems throughout Massachusetts and is currently assessing sites.

HEET and the MassCEC look forward to studying the results of utility-installed networked geothermal throughout Massachusetts and to sharing this research publicly as a tool for gas utilities, cities and states to achieve their climate emissions goals and launch the transition from gas to geothermal. 

“Massachusetts is founding the utility of the future,” said HEET Co-Executive Director Zeyneb Magavi. “It’s both exciting and a great responsibility. HEET is committed to ensuring we have the transparency, data and science needed to get us to zero-emissions equitably, while improving our health, our economy, and growing good jobs.”