Contact Us
Sponsored Content

Can You Dig It? College Goes Underground For Year-Round Carbon-Neutral Energy Source

Subterra is overseeing the drilling of 850 boreholes on the campus.

Ohio’s Oberlin College and Conservatory says it is an institution that embraces “intense energy and creativity” among its students and faculty, and the 3,000-student liberal arts college is taking the same tack with its power consumption, becoming an early U.S. adopter of geothermal exchange, a sustainable heating and cooling method.

But what makes the project a “watershed moment” is that the installation of a geothermal network is being performed as a retrofit on the school’s historic and busy campus, said Scott Jones, senior vice president of construction for Subterra Renewables. Subterra is installing a network of underground wells and pipes that will harness the earth’s ability to act as a thermal battery to provide cooling to Oberlin buildings during the summer and warmth in the winter.

“Up to now, geothermal has been largely used in new building construction, where the work areas are cleared and primed for drilling and then the new structure is built above the looping and geoexchange network,” Jones said. “In the case of Oberlin, we are drilling under the existing sports field, located not far from the main buildings, to install a network of about 850 wells to a depth of approximately 600 feet each.”

The geoexchange system will heat and cool a district of approximately 55 buildings. Oberlin estimates the new system will reduce its energy consumption by 30%, annual water use by 5 million gallons and sewer discharge by 4 million gallons. 

“This work integrates the earth as an energy-storage device,” Joel Baetens, Oberlin’s campus energy and resource manager, said in a statement. “When completed, the system will enable us to lean on clean energy for our heating needs, a pivotal step in our commitment to carbon neutrality.”

Bisnow spoke with Jones to learn more about geoexchange technology and how the company’s business model can help institutional clients adopt it.

Bisnow: Geothermal exchange is a relatively new technology in the U.S. How does Subterra help a client such as Oberlin adopt it seamlessly?

Jones: Subterra is vertically integrated, meaning we can drill, install, operate, manage and maintain the system all in-house, and at much lower costs than conventional system providers can. 

Having this background means we understand all aspects of the project since we often act as the owner of district heating and cooling systems. From a knowledge and seamless adoption perspective, we work with our clients to do everything from problem-solving site logistics to assisting in educating their on-site local contractors about geoexchange installation.

In the case of Oberlin, we provided advanced technology and equipment such as spoils management systems to reduce water consumption and site maintenance. We also worked closely with the engineering consultant to provide constructability feedback.

Subterra monitors and provides analytics tools to optimize energy consumption and maximize savings. This removes upfront costs and the management burden for project owners, as well as the long-term risks of constructing and operating the system themselves. 

Our energy as a service model can adapt to changes in demand and be further tailored to specific needs in the event additional buildings are added. We offer this under an all-inclusive renewable energy fee, with no surcharges or servicing fees added.

Bisnow: How does Subterra ensure that its work does not disturb activities at Oberlin? 

Jones: We kicked off the drilling in the spring of 2023 when the college took a break for the summer session and there were fewer students and staff on-site. We also coordinated the activities with the university and our supply partners to ensure the least amount of disruption with about 25% of the work being completed in the summer. 

We expect the drilling and thermal loops installation to be completed about 10 months from when we started. When done, we’ll have 850 boreholes at a depth of 600 feet with total vertical drilling of almost 100 miles.

Bisnow: The Oberlin project involves the use of some Ohio-made drilling equipment in its private fleet. Was that intentional? 

Jones: We always look to use our local suppliers where possible. With 70 rigs now in our fleet, it just so happens that one of our most technologically advanced rigs, the Terra Sonic TSi, is manufactured in Ohio. 

With our fleet located across both the U.S. and Canada, we have more flexibility to easily add and transition talent and resources from one site to another as required. This allows us to meet our deadlines and bid on projects across North America.

Bisnow: Do you expect the Oberlin project to lead to more work with universities and other institutions? 

Jones: We are in discussions with several interested parties in the university and college campus sector that have heard about our Oberlin project. Many of these colleges are located around heritage buildings and campuses that run fossil fuel-powered heating and cooling systems but are now looking to make a switch to a geoexchange. This will not only reduce their carbon footprints but will also reduce their operating utility costs by nearly one-third. 

We are also starting to entertain more queries about our energy as a service offering. Since district heating and cooling services a network of buildings, we could operate the system as a utility manager under our EaaS model.

Subterra in this case sets a renewable energy fee that is expected to be less than the cost of a conventional system. Our system is independent of market fluctuations and protects project owners and their end users from price surges common with conventional systems. 

The Subterra team is excited about 2024, as we expect to be adding more universities and institutions to our project portfolio.

This article was produced in collaboration between Subterra Renewables and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

Studio B is Bisnow’s in-house content and design studio. To learn more about how Studio B can help your team, reach out to