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Ever Wonder How Geothermal Energy Works?


Of course not! Because if you didn’t know how it worked, you wouldn’t know how freaking cool it is. I mean, hot.

Ok, ok, no more, I swear.

If you have any classes in Stevenson, Douglas, or Lincoln Hall, your professors may have bragged that they teach in the most environmentally friendly building at UIC. This is true—there are solar panels on all three roofs (check it out from the 4th floor of the Daley Library sometime) and a surprisingly simple energy strategy powering the glass-walled structures. Unfortunately, only a few people know about the geothermal system used by these buildings. To be honest, it’s pretty underground.

Get it? Ok, fine, I’m done, alright?

What actually is geothermal energy?

This is energy created by using steam from hot ground water pockets (called hot-spots, usually found under volcanic areas like the Western half of the US, or the entirety of Iceland) to power electric generators. Some geothermal plants source their heat from tectonic boundaries in the ocean. Actually capturing the steam from these sources isn’t too complicated, and can be done in multiple ways, three of which are shown below. The most common way is to utilize natural “hydrothermal convection” systems. This is were cold water seeps into the earth’s crust, becomes heated, rises, and is forced to the surface. To effectively capture the steam, most energy plants drill holes into the earth; the ones below Grant Hall are 500 feet deep. It’s totally sustainable, because we don’t expect the water cycle to stop, or Earth’s core to cool anytime soon.


Courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists

If you want a scientist to explain it (undoubtedly better than I), check out the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Ok, but why?

Because Douglas Hall is the same size as the concrete-striped, Soviet-era buildings that dot our East Campus (Stevenson or Burnham Hall, for example), yet it uses less than half of the energy and heat used by each of them. That impressively small total may also be brought down because increased natural light from increased windows, meaning there’s less of a need for power to create artificial light.

Geothermal is incredibly clean energy; there is no waste and no emissions. It can be provided continuously, which is the main shortcoming of wind and solar power. It’s even estimated to become cheaper than natural gas energy, at five cents/kilowatt hour, versus gas, at six. Developers have found ways to combine the process of energy production in this manner with existing oil well infrastructure, even using hot waste water produced from fracking jobs to power geothermal production equipment.

The possibilities demonstrated by these geothermal-ly powered buildings is important to UIC’s Office of Sustainability, which has the goal of becoming a Carbon-Neutral campus. This means we don’t emit more than our allotted amount of CO2, which is determined by our total surface area. Currently, we’re planning to reduce our emissions by 40% by 2030, and by 80% by 2050. Remodeling our outdated buildings to function like Grant, Douglas, and Lincoln will get us closer to our goal of a sustainable campus. As an added bonus, they’ll be quite a bit easier on the eyes and the electric bills.


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